Tagged: formal composition

The Black Mural

Umbrae (BÔŁT RECORDS 1037 / DUX 1371) is a collection of four modern pieces composed by Andrzej Kwieciński, and played by Royal String Quartet. It’s a pretty intense set, with plenty of dissonant tones and anguished emotions on display, but still achieving a species of doomed beauty, and all composed and performed with a certain steely authority and gravitas. Kwieciński’s quite a young fellow, and happens to have been born just at the tail end of Poland’s early 1980s crisis, when trade union leader Lech Wałęsa went up against the communist authorities, who put the country under martial rule in 1981. However, Kwieciński is one of a number of Polish composers from this period who have remained “untrammelled by the Polish past”, and presumably welcomes the general shift from communism to capitalism that has been underway in Poland ever since.

Despite any attempts to forget Poland’s grim history, Kwieciński’s music on Umbrae is sombre and grim in its overall caste. The title track sets out the composer’s stall in no uncertain terms – a parcel of dissonant chords which express an unfailing mood of bitterness. Get used to those jarring arrays of ill-fitting notes; there’s plenty more on the album to come. The mid section of ‘Umbrae’ is especially alarming and agitated, and already I wonder if I’ll come out alive. ‘Contregambiles’ is even more unsettling, and feels very 20th-century in its use of random-seeming swipes of the strings to produce hideous chords, as if composed by “aleatory” methods. A man can’t get a foothold on the shifting sands here, and there’s no tonal centre to call a home.

At least on ‘Mural’ Kwieciński deigns to use some repetition – at any rate I think I can make out a repeated phrase and variations on it, which restores some small sense of comfort to an alienated listener. The overall mood is still gloomy as heck, and if I was beholding a mural on a wall of a Polish civic building, chances are that it would mostly be painted in shades of black and grey, and depict scenes of oppression and misery using many oblique symbols to allude to a long history of human pain.

My favourite piece here is ‘Luci Nella Notte V’. It’s far calmer than the rest of the set and provides a balm to all the agitation and unrest that sits either side. He’s manage to wrest a fascinating sound from the string players – astringent despairing tones, strings that cut and burn with their dolour. At some point here I was reminded of the works of Purcell, which might not be an inept comparison; Kwieciński studied Baroque singing (he is in fact a countertenor vocalist, like Alfred Deller), and the sleeve notes allude to another Baroque influenced orchestral project of his called Canzon de’baci, based on a 16th century poem by Guarini. Any fellow who digs the Baroque classics can’t be all bad, even if he does emphasise the pain and heartache within Purcell’s music. Packaged in a six-panel digipak (for no good reason, apart from allowing some typographical indulgences) with a booklet insert, notes in Polish and English, and a photo of Royal String Quartet dressed in black and ready for action. They look like a team of paid assassins from a Jason Statham movie. From 21st December 2016.

Empty Space

Montreal composer James O’Callaghan has a collection called Espaces Tautologiques (empreintes DIGITALes IMED 16140), a release which is dominated by three parts of his electro-acoustic trilogy realised between 2013-2015. On ‘Objects-Interiors’ he does it with the inside of a piano; on ‘Bodies-Soundings’, an acoustic guitar and a toy piano; and on ‘Empties-Impetus’, the acoustic instruments of a string quartet. In each case there’s some attempt made to investigate acoustic spaces in some way, mainly by feeding back sounds and recordings of sounds into the resonating body in question. What ends up on the disc is a series of anonymous, samey-sounding creaks and groans. I found it a plodding listen, and extremely self-reflexive; music that simply describes itself, and describes the processes that brought it into being, as if the composer is merely building an echo chamber for a series of banal, self-regarding truisms, to be repeated ad infinitum. Virtually no effort has been made to sublimate this boring process music. From October 2016.

Popular Belief

Superb set of compositions by the American composer Eric Wubbels is called Duos With Pianos Book I (CARRIER RECORDS CARRIER 030). We’ve received many release from this New York label Carrier Records and enjoyed every one of them. Members of Wet Ink Ensemble, previously noted in these pages for their work with Sam Pluta, accompany pianist Wubbels on this set of compositions dated from 2007 to 2014. The press notes characterise Wubbels – who happens to be co-director of Wet Ink Ensemble – as “a rare virtuoso of extended piano technique”, and there’s abundant evidence on the grooves that follow. But he’s also a hyper-intelligent composer with a conceptual depth that enriches every one of these pieces.

For instance ‘Shiverer’ – a compact but dense explanation is given in the CD notes for this equally dense music. It’s something to do with “relationships between the instruments” and the way they play. Piano and flute in this case. Right away it’s clear Wubbels is a composer who understands how instruments actually work, and the extremes to which they can be pushed, an adventurous spirit we’ve been missing since the time of Charles Mingus. Wubbels admits this is a “dfficult” piece, but the main problem for players is the complex co-ordination of ideas and actions which they have to achieve. In these eight minutes we’ve got a rich flow of traffic, of ideas compressed into notes, and the sparks fly when one or more of these bundles intersect. Further, Wubbels has the notion that he’s making the musicians pass through “a series of gates” – a metaphor which would please those who like to interpret Mark Rothko’s paintings in that way – and through technical skill and mental effort, a spiritual epiphany may be reached. Whew.

‘The Children Of Fire Come Looking For Fire’ arrives in two long parts. Scored for violin and prepared piano. While previous piece seemed like it could almost pass for very advanced 1960s classical avant, this one owns up in its opening seconds to its contemporary “noisy” influences. Josh Modney’s violin scrape throughout is intense – acoustic Merzbow on the cat gut! Rarely heard such wild atonal screeches on that instrument. But this sound of his didn’t just “happen” one fine day when they strolled into the recording studio; rather it’s the result of months of planning, rehearsals and hard work which Wubbels instigated. It earned Modney a printed dedication; one senses it was a painful process for him. Apparently this piece is derived from a small section of a Brahms piano piece, where Wubbels has zoomed in on a few precious seconds of music and used its form as the basis for an entire compositional structure. To put it another way, he’s taken what he calls a “contrary motion wodge shape” from Brahms and repurposed it into these 25 minutes of astonishing music; I can’t understand more than the gist of his explanatory notes, but once again it feels like he’s pushing something to the utmost limits, when he speaks of a “neume that functions on every structural level…from global trajectories to micro-gestures”. This approach seems very comprehensive, and no doubt accounts for the remarkable richness of ‘Children Of Fire’’s content; it’s like reading a thick 400-page treatise on an abstruse subject, and quite often the challenging ideas are presented with tremendous speed. Yet it’s not incoherent or disjunctive; even though highly structured and near-abstract, this comes over as a very convincing argument, thought-through from start to finish.

‘Doxa’ is another two-parter, scored for prepared piano and prepared vibraphone. Only the most minimal of notes are supplied by Wubbels for this mysterious piece; almost like two lines from a modernist poem. Part I = (mind cannot be grasped). In stark contrast to the busy-ness of the previous pieces, Doxa part I is a blank canvas occasionally decorated with bursts of light and colour from the two percussion instruments, chiming into the silence as if reluctant to disturb the stillness of the atmosphere. The carefully-programmed silences in this piece give us a chance to breathe, finally. True to its title Part I does convey something of a mental problem which can’t be solved, a philosophical investigation into a metaphysical conundrum. Part II = appearances/phenomena. Even more restrained than its brother, but at least the sound it makes is continuous, a beautiful limpid near-drone of crystal-clear music which slowly grows in richness and complexity. With its relatively limited range of notes and the repeated patterns, ‘Doxa Part II’ is like Morton Feldman enriched with vitamins and power drinks.

Lastly, the 20-minute ‘This Is This Is This Is’, two alto saxophones with a prepared piano. Dedicated to the writer David Foster Wallace whose thinking had quite an influence on the composer Wubbels; indeed he’s decided to try and articulate, in music, a particular type of consciousness that was propounded and advocated by Wallace. It’s something to do with moving beyond the habits of thought patterns which we all accumulate in our lives, and also trying to transform everyday life into something sacred and meaningful. Certainly ‘This Is This Is This Is’ does seem, in places, to zip by at the speed of thought, and there are no end of repeated patterns in the music. A sense of struggle is conveyed, Wubbels trying perhaps to break free from the very shackles of his own ideas. “Extended repetition as a force against habit,” as he would have it; and if this music doesn’t represent a significant advance on the repeated arpeggios of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, then I’ll eat my hat. From 7th October 2016.

The neoN Demons

Striking set of contemporary avant-garde music by the Norwegian Ensemble neoN on their self-titled debut album (AURORA ACD5084). The confidence, enthusiasm and boldness of their playing is remarkable for a debut set. Jan Martin Smørdal and Julian Skar formed the Ensemble around 2008, recruiting from fellow musicians trained at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo; they’ve been playing concerts ever since, mostly in nearby parts of mainland Europe at venues and festivals, but in 2016 they made it to New York. There are nine musicians, two composers (both represented on this album) and a conductor.

All five pieces are worth noting. ‘Travelling Light 2’ is composed by Kristine Tjøgersen; it “might take place inside a camera lens” according to the sleeve note by Jenny Hval. I found it a fascinating conundrum in musical form. Huge gaps where you least expect it punctuate the weird microtonal sounds. Mini-droning effects from woodwinds, obsessive whines from strings and percussion. The composition deals in vaguely obsessive repetitions of a phrase, or an idea. I can’t quite grasp it. A wonder in miniature, aided by the strong dynamics of the performance.

Jan Martin Smordal composed ‘My Favorite Things 2’, a “game of other people’s memories” according to Hval. To me it resembles a clunky steam engine from the 19th century being constructed in sound and lurching into life. A chamber piece that “shunts” along in an endearing manner. Piano and percussion act as the pistons, the flute and woodwind provide the steam. I like the unexpected pauses, the broken metres, the crisp sounds. But the whole album is beautifully recorded that way.

It’s no surprise to the world that we can consider Oren Ambarchi, the Australian musician who developed his own unique sound on the amplified guitar, a composer nowadays. He worked with James Rushford on ‘Monocots’. This is a wild and wacky one…sound effects of water are poured into a carafe and the mysterious gasping whispering lady is briefly glimpsed. An acoustic guitar wanders around in a detective novel. Vibes and flute create wonderful plangent chord shapes in the background. This “develops” a bit better than what we’ve heard so far. A real structure to it, but an oddball one, which is why I keep thinking of it as a detective film noir or mystery novel. If Morton Feldman had been asked to score Farewell My Lovely…this might have been the result. Highly unusual and very special. Now I must check out the Wreckage album (2012) by this pair, on the Norwegian Prisma Records label.

For their fourth outing, the Ensemble have a crack at one of the Grand Bosthoons of Minimalism, the great Alvin Lucier (who bestrode the Lovely Music label like a gigantic Bird and Person). We feel bound to expect a certain degree of ascetic restraint. The players do not disappoint on their rendition of ‘Two Circles’. The 18-minute piece feels like a dream of New York streets and how they used to be in the 1960s. Maybe they were cleaner, longer, narrower, and emptier. They never were that way in reality, but in this dream music anything is possible. If you accept that premise, enjoy the long shadows cast by odd shapes and all in black or white. Lengthy tones sustained and explored to create very tasty dissonances and flavours in the air. Strings, woodwinds, vibes – all merged into brilliant morass, a cloud with solid steel edges. Probably the “best in show” ribbon should go to this majestic slice of modernity.

But there’s plenty surprises still to come, on the final piece ‘Kunsten A Tvile 2’ composed by Julian Skar. Here the ensemble get pretty manic as they effectively turn themselves into a crazy typewriter operated by the world’s most breathless stenographer. The piano and percussion section emulate the keys of that outsize device. Around us we have strings and woodwinds creating a nightmare of unfinished work, forming its own wild tornado right there in the office. This the sort of thing that Sam Pluta and Wet Ink Ensemble should have a stab at, or associate themselves with in some way. The piece is structured to deliver to very alarming upbeat sections with the frantic typewriter effect, and these are surrounded either side by clouds of avant-garde ambiguity. But the wailing woman won’t be placated either.

This really is a very rewarding set, extremely well recorded and produced to a very high standard by all concerned. I feel that Ensemble neoN have a very clear intent and have spent a lot of time honing their craft. The results should do much to reinvigorate contemporary music, an ambition in which I hope they succeed. From September 2016.

Till We Have Faces

The Norwegian Ensemble Song Circus are a seven-piece of vocalists, led by their artistic director Liv Runesdatter. Their Anatomy Of Sound project appears to be an ongoing thing for the years 2014-2018, and involves working with a number of modern composers…they’re trying to get into “the very microlevels of sound anatomy”, as they would say, which involves working away at microtones with their voices, exploring certain acoustic spaces, and the timbral qualities of certain objects. On the particular release we have before us (2L RECORDS 2L-117-SABD), they perform a 12-part suite called Landscape With Figures, composed by Ruben Sverre Gjertsen, a contemporary Norwegian composer. There’s a longer 70-minute version which involves and orchestra and live electronics, but this is the 44-minute version for vocalists with live electronics, a work whose full realisation involves a complicated set-up in the performance arena, where the vocalists and other musicians are positioned in the audience, and careful microphone placement is needed along with a large loudspeaker for acousmatic playback. Clearly this “Landscape” is very much about “spatial awareness” in a big way, which may be one reason why it appeals to the members of Song Circus. This may also account for why the record has been released on a Blu-Ray disc and an SACD on this package. The former probably allows 5.0 surround-sound playback for those who have the right set-up at home (I don’t, sadly), and permits a truly immersive experience. Even so, the sound on the normal CD is pristine and sharp to an extremely high degree. Gjertsen has studied the work Trevor Wishart and Brian Ferneyhough, and absorbed their ideas about “systems of notation and composition”.

Buried somewhere at the heart of these whispering voices and atonal vocal acrobatics, there may be some textual material derived from the work of James Joyce. It’s hard to make it out though, and it may also be mixed up with other texts from Demian Vitanza, the Norwegian novelist. While there’s a nice set of anagrams using the words “Finnegans Wake” printed in the booklet, I’m not sure is this is anything more than an addendum. James Joyce’s words and ideas buy kamagra online with paypal have been used in avant-garde music for some time now, most famously perhaps by Luciano Berio for his Ommagio A Joyce, composed in the late 1950s, and there’s also John Cage’s Roaratorio from 1979. I’d like to say Landscape With Figures is a worthy addition to the canon, but it doesn’t really succeed when measured up against either of those two predecessors, or against the work of Joyce itself. However, representing Joyce may not be the central aim of Gjertsen, and the cumulative effect of these mysterious fragmented voice murmurs and splintered electronic sound is quite pleasing. However, it also feels oddly old-fashioned; this could easily have been released in the mid-1960s on the Music Of Our Time series.

The second work on the disc is Persefone, composed by Ole-Henrik Moe, another Norwegian modernist who is also a classically trained violinist. This work calls for five female voices, who also lay “an orchestra of wine glasses” – the so-called “glass harmonica” that can produce pleasing high-pitched continual sounds. The Persephone of classical mythology was, among other things, the queen of the Underworld – a notion that is most likely to have preoccupied the mind of Moe when he created this slow micro-tonal work. Landscape With Figures sounds positively bustling with activity compared with this largely static set of haunting, abstract murmurs and howls. The voice of Persephone is a many-layered beast, like that of a thousand owls and sad lonely wolves.

Throughout both pieces, Song Circus perform flawlessly. In fact their performances are almost inhuman in their clinical perfection, and if we add the super-human clarity of these recordings and the very alien, abstract nature of the music, I sometimes wonder what there is left for us to enjoy. Somehow there is a certain pleasure to be found in the coldness of this work, and the remorseless way the music is executed, which may not be anything like what Liv Runesdatter and her crew intend. I think the faceless woman on the front cover is very telling, a visual index of the near-anonymous music inside. From 8th August 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.

Counting Crows

Veteran composer Francis Dhomont is one of the big noises in Canadian electro-acoustic and musique concrète composition, so it’s no surprise to see him represented on the showcase label empreintes DIGITALes with his recent composition, Le Cri Du Choucas (IMED 16138). Astute readers (and viewers) will instantly recognise the piercing eyes of Franz Kafka collaged on the cover art there. Le Cri Du Choucas takes the ideas of Kafka as its theme, a pursuit which Dhomont has been following since 1997. There’s a previous chapter, Études Pour Kafka, released by this same label in 2009; I don’t recall hearing that one, but the body of it has been reworked here. The composer also positions this release as the third and final part of a grand triologie, begun in 1981 as Sous Le Regard D’un Soleil Noir (released by INA-GRM in France) and continued in the mid-1990s as Forêt Profonde. He aims at extremes of drama, enriched with ideas about psychology; he wishes to plumb the depths of a man’s mind, through sound.

You could pick no better creator who personifies “unknowable depth” than your man Kafka; I’ve been reading his short stories since about 1979, and one day I hope to understand them. I can’t claim to have studied a great deal of critical analysis of Kafka, and I’m not sure that I care to; there’s a pleasure to be had for the reader in the constant mystification he sets up with his warped visions of European vistas, his mental labyrinths and strange symbols. I’ve no doubt there are numerous interpretations and explanations of The Trial and The Penal Colony, both works which feature in this music, but Francis Dhomont emphasises one particular aspect: the Law. Dhomont takes “the law” in Kafka to be “a metaphoric representation of the impenetrable realms the human mind hits”, and explores this theme with some determination. He probably reads Kafka’s work as describing a maze which always leads back to the same inescapable place, and ascribes the tone of despair and futility to the gloomy inevitability of mankind’s fate.

Dhomont also gives us his sonic take on other significant Kafka themes, including guilt, solitude, dreams, death, the family, and “impossible messages” – the last one being an apt description of Kafka’s own short stories, for this reader. On Le Cri Du Choucas – a title which incidentally translates as “The jackdaw’s call” and makes a punning reference to the Czech word Kavka – he does it through rich and maximal fugues of abstract sound. Everything has been heavily treated and processed through a vast amount of expensive-sounding digital crunch and filter effects, yet you feel you could somehow reverse-engineer these noises into their sources if you only listened for long enough. Alien though they be, some sounds closely resemble swarms of chattering voices in a huge mass, which is how I remember parts of Frankenstein Symphony by this composer (from 1997). Often these sounds coalesce and rush forward in a massed advance which seems unstoppable; it creates a suitably nightmarish and unreal mood for the listener.

The work is further illustrated and signposted by a good deal of spoken-word narration (in French), fragments of texts and documentary recordings which I assume highlight significant milestones in the design. But these interpolations also interrupt the flow of the music, and keep reminding us of the grand abstractions that Dhomont wishes to convey, barely allowing us any space to conceive our own thoughts. This is one of the stumbling blocks for me on this otherwise exciting release, as it lends an air of didacticism to the work; it’s like being lectured by stern academics in a stuffy University where the Kafka syllabus hasn’t been updated in over 35 years. One senses that the masters at this academy would have no truck with Orson Welles’ free-spirited cinematic interpretation of The Trial. It’s also something of an old-school musique concrète technique, one which has tended to mar my enjoyment of Pierre Henry’s Apocalypse De Jean, that famed Oratorio Electronique from 1969. This aside, you can comfortably play this meticulous work at peak volumes for immersive and transporting effects, to induce profound states of mind…from 25 May 2016.

Whither Canada? Part 2

Another three items from the Canadian Ambiances Magnétiques label representing aspects of modern music mostly from Montreal. As it happens these arrived before the last batch, on 24th February 2016.

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Calling yourself Ensemble SuperMusique is bound to raise high expectations in your audience, but the team of Jean Derome, Bernard Falaise, Joanne Hétu, Danielle P Roger et al are clearly consummate musicians. Perhaps they mean that the music they play is some form of “hyper-music”, or “meta-music”, rather than implying they have super powers. On Les Accords Intuitifs (AM 222 CD), the players perform in various combinations with woodwinds, electric guitar, percussion, synths, violin, piano, bass guitar, and the human voice. The turntablist Martin Tétreault joins them for two pieces. Together, they play their interpretations of compositions by Malcolm Goldstein, Raymond Gervais (avant-garde conceptaluist and creator of multi-media pieces), Yves Bouliane (bass player in Le Quatuor De Jazz Libre Du Québec), Bernard Falaise, and Joanne Hétu (noted in the last batch) – all of whom are Canadian, with the exception of Goldstein who is half American. All of the works are quite challenging to listen to, full of dissonances, tensions, and yawning gaps; I kind of like the way that classical modernism, free improvisation and contemporary rock noise all seem to meet up in the same room, but the conversations they hold are very forced and mannered, as if they were total strangers trying to be stiffly polite to each other.

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The composer Simon Martin was highly taken with an art exhibit he saw in 2005 and tried to convey his feelings in music. On Hommage a Leduc, Borduas et Riopelle (CQB 1616), he’s expressly paying his tribute to the Canadian painters Paul-Émile Borduas, Borduas’ tutor Ozias Leduc, and the sculptor / painter / lithographer Jean-Paul Riopelle, and he’s engaged three different Canadian ensembles to realise his visions. The Trio De Guitares Contemporain play ‘L’Heure Mauve’, and they pluck and strum single notes on their classical guitars with a certain single-mindedness which to my ears is an attempt to recast the pointillist technique into music; like seeing the brushstrokes of Seurat dot themselves onto the canvas one by one. In fact, the composer is trying to recapture the effects of light on foliage, to get to the heart of one of the things that motivated Leduc to paint in the first place. Next, Quasar quatuor de saxophones blow an impressionistic breeze on ‘Projections Liberantes’, producing many subtle and pleasing overtones in their slightly dissonant overlapping drones. This piece is attempting to say something about the voyage of self-discovery undertaken by Borduas, and proposes 11 minutes of gradual dawning realisation in sound. Lastly, the Quatuor Bozzini raise their violins, viola and cello in the most dramatic piece on the album, called ‘Icebergs Et Soleil De Minuit – Quator En Blanc’. That title alone is evocative enough, and the nerve-shredding tautness of this icy, minimal piece is served well by it. Isabelle Bozzini and her team create astonishing atmospheres and microtonal contrasts in this 17-minute chiller of dissonance and Beckettian emptiness. Simon Martin’s intention here was surprisingly literal – he simply wanted to represent Riopelle’s Iceberg paintings in sound, a series the painter worked on in the 1970s. Worth seeking out images of these stark monochrome oils with their sharp strokes of black, white and grey. And if you want to hear more of the Quatuor Bozzini, they’ve also made records of James Tenney, John Cage, and Steve Reich.

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Quasar – the Quasar Quatuor De Saxophones, to give them their complete name – also have a solo record of their modernistic saxophone work, Du Souffle (CQB 1617). They tackle works by Canadian composers Philippe Leroux, Gilles Tremblay, Jimmie LeBlanc, Claude Vivier and Louis Andriessen. All convincing material and well played too, though LeBlanc’s Fil Rouge strikes a chord on today’s spin, perhaps because of its extreme compression; very short segments in this 8-part suite, of which one lasts just 7 seconds, but still manages to say something with a few well-placed toots. I’ve tried reading the composer’s explanation of Fil Rouge, but it loses me with its abstruse inter-textual associations. With the other pieces here, it’s notable how many of them stand on the cusp of turning into big-band jazz; there’s something about the chord changes, the awkward attempts to “swing”, and the occasional forays into “complexity” that feel like a laborious attempt to score something which any member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra could easily have played at the drop of a fedora. This jazz leaning is most evident on Facing Death, the 1990 composition by Andriessen, which explicitly attempts to pay homage to the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He originally composed this recasting of complex Be-Bop music for strings, knowing full well that “bebop is not at all idiomatic for string instruments”. It kind of misfires in this woodwind arrangement too, but Quasar acquit themselves well with their efforts, and there’s no denying the heartfelt sentiment behind Andriessen’s work. I just wish it didn’t make jazz seem so “worthy”, like some sort of improving text which we have to study, rather than simply dig.

Whither Canada? Part 1

Herewith some items from the Canadian Ambiances Magnétiques label representing aspects of modern music mostly from Montreal. Arrived 7th March 2016.

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Joane Hétu is a vocalist and sax player, renowned on the Montreal free improvisation “scene”. Her Famille (AM 225 CD) is a selection of concert recordings made between 2009 and 2015; the Mercredimusics @ Casa Obscura series of concerts might be the Canadian equivalent of Company Week, dedicated to free improvisation. Certainly, the team-up-with-anyone spirit nurtured by Derek Bailey is alive and well in Canada, if these snapshots are anything to go by. There’s a long list of fellow improvvers on the sleeve here with which Joane has thrown down her vocal and woodwind exploits, including a few names we recognise, such as Pierre-Yves Martel, Philippe Lauzier, and Alexandre St-Onge. Not every track is an outright winner for me, but the subdued mysterious mood running through this album is very intriguing, and my preference is for those cuts which whine and drone exquisitely without anyone appearing to exert themselves very much. Joane Hétu’s sax work is adequate, her voice work is far more distinctive, and while her errant hooting may be an acquired taste her murmurs and pained squeaks are strangely satisfying, in spite of their minimal content. So far a picture emerges of Canadian improvisers being capable of far more restraint than you might find, let’s say, during an evening with Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker.

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Speaking of Pierre-Yves Martel, I was reminded of his astonishing record Continuum when I heard Émilie Préfère Le Chant (AM 223 CD), a solo release by Émilie Girard-Charest, and wondered if this talented violoncello player had spun in his orbit or come under his influence to some degree. Her self-composed ‘S’offrir’ is an exquisite dream of near-silence: as with Continuum, there’s the same concern with maintaining a rigid posture while playing and doing nothing to disturb the enchanted mood. The other interpretations of works by contemporary composers are slightly more “busy” and would veer towards the now-conventional dissonance and randomness, were it not for the exciting electro-acoustic effects (I think) in evidence on such strange weirdies as ‘Espoir Squelettique’, written by Maxime Corbeil-Perron. ‘Altered Gray’ by Frederik Gran is another one that seems to have electronic elements bundled in the package, and is equally puzzling in its uneventful, hard-to-follow structure. Arid spiritual journeys await the listener here, with only a few drops of cold water offered for relief along the trail, and it’s never clear what the destination is or when we’ve actually arrived. Joane Hétu (see above) composed the title track, an angular and unpleasant piece that requires much dragging and stabbing of the strings to perform it.

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More desiccated modernism by Quattor Bozzini as they perform Momento (CQB 1615) by the depressing post-serialist Aldo Clementi. This Italian composer who died in 2011 seems to have regarded his work in purely academic terms, measuring his success as a series of “contrapuntal exercises”; critics, when attempting to summarise it, apparently tend to reach for metaphors of decay. Clementi strove to compose music that describes its own gradual extinction. One imagines he was happiest when watching the sands run out of an hourglass, and then retiring to bed replete with the satisfaction that another day had been wasted. These various canons and other pieces, ranging in date from 1968 to 2005, brought a deathly pallor to my skin, induced short breathing, and made me dream of wandering 19th-century parlours with no windows and heavy green wallpaper everywhere.

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Contrabass player Nicolas Caloia has been working for years to try and blur the edges between composition and improvisation, and bring together high art and low art in a single enticing package. To that end, he has worked with several improvising players and attempts to “channel” their energy in his compositions. On Les Bonnes Histories (AM 226 CD), he does it with the flautist Jean Derome, the clarinettist Lori Freedman, and two vocalists – Gabriel Dharmoo and Geneviève Letarte. Sad to say success has not been manifested here. I can’t find much evidence of channelled energy, or indeed any movement at all in these sluggish suites. And I’m all in favour of blurring cultural distinctions in the name of reaching a wider audience, but why then does Caloia’s work remain so cryptic and inaccessible? A confusing, broken narrative may slowly emerge for the patient listener, but the point of this work remains very obscure for me; everything proceeds at a leaden pace, and the information seems deliberately veiled and clouded in pseudo-mystery. The cartoony rebuses with their captions, including a human intestinal system, a red-brick bridge, and a large eye with clouds floating nearby, don’t lighten the mood, nor explain anything very much. I remain completely alienated by this overly-intellectual and torpid music.

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Mikrokosmos: Quartetski Does Bartók (AM 224 CD) is a much more successful instance of the cross-fertilisation and bridge-building which I assume Nicolas Caloia is aiming at. This Montreal five-piece (confounding expectations raised by their name that they might be a four-piece) strive to reinterpret classical music in a contemporary setting, and on the evidence of this release they do it very well, producing a listenable and entertaining experience. Pierre Yves-Martel (bass, synth) and Philippe Lauzier (woodwinds) are present, along with the electric guitarist Bernard Falaise, the violinist Joshua Zubot, and the drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli. Images of their stage set make Quartetski look like a cross between a chamber ensemble and a rock group, and their music delivers precisely that – original melodies and arrangements reshuffled into accessible modernistic arrangements, with a jazzy swing feeling, dissonant noises and scrapes from the violin, loud rockist segments from the guitarist, and even free improv elements from the woodwind section. A lot of stop-starts, quick changes, and poised dynamics allowing each musician to shine; the brevity of these pieces, and the slight air of genial clunkiness in the playing, also made me think of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. I’m not at all familiar with the works of Bartók, and a purist classical buff might give a more cautious reception to this album (or even retreat from it in horror), but ignorance is bliss and I’m finding this a pleasant spin today. When Michal Libera does cultural mashups for his Bolt Label, he’s trying to get the audience to ask deep and searching questions about the meaning of things we previously took for granted; Quartetski are simpler, and they just want us to enjoy good music in a new setting, with fresh ears. If you want more of this, they “did” a Prokofiev album in 2007 for Ambiences Magnétiques. Fine work.

Four Electric Organs

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Recently noted Karl Records and their occasional forays into documenting 20th-century avant-garde music. I see they call this their “Parnassus Series”, which seems to me a tad unfortunate; American Minimalist Steve Reich is undoubtedly a pioneer, but claiming immortality and super-powers for the man may be a shade optimistic. On today’s item Four Organs / Phase Patterns / Pendulum Music (KR026), we’ve got interpretations of four of his early works from 1968 and 1970 for percussion, piano and organs, played by Ensemble Avantgarde. This German group were formed in Leipzig in 1989, and have produced many well-respected recordings of Cage, Feldman, Berio, and others, and been published by excellent labels such as Wergo, Hat Art, and Darbinghaus & Grimm. Matter of fact they’ve “done” Reich before in 1999, playing these exact same pieces; since that was for a CD release, I suppose the label hyperbole about “available on vinyl for the first time ever!” is accurate. I have a lot of time for Reich’s early music, but for some reason these performances don’t do a lot for me. Ensemble Avantgarde’s playing is probably very accurate, but it feels kind of clinical, even lifeless. For now I’ll stick with my 1974 copy of Deutsche Grammophon DG 2535-463, which is full of the sprightliness and clean lines I associate with the compositions of this most approachable of minimalists, and which often sends me into the expected trance-like state through its benign repetitions, a sensation which I’m not experiencing on today’s play. Maybe having Steve Reich in the room makes a difference; my favourite recordings are those on which he is supervising the production, or even playing an instrument himself. From 17th March 2016.