Tagged: minimal

Strange Delights

Haxel Garbini
Uri
ITALY SNOWDONIA SW0077 LP (2015)

Massaging brains with his short ideas repeated is Italy’s Haxel Garbini, a new name to me, somewhat shadowy in both profile and in sound. The twelve process-based (de)constructions that make up URI find Garbini operating within a quasi-Minimalist frame: clipped phrases fed through effect-pedals ad infinitum. A faint whiff of cod-orientalism. Slender arrangements for distortion-driven dirge and highly nuanced composition both, with an enduring indifference to the possibility of reconciling such uncomplimentary approaches.

Typical of this pathology, ‘Estate 1984’ and its subsequent ‘Reprise’ have far less in common than good old chalk n’cheese: the former a swift, swampy elegy to forgotten toys, and its counterpart, a hypnotising harmony of reverberant organ tones that harken us towards a trance state. Neither blood relations, nor cosy bedfellows, such bi-polar antics are made acceptable only by the omnipresence of this unlikely pairing strategy: ‘Emergere/Fluttuare’ (to give another example) sees the sludgy, seabed stirring of a disgruntled cello beneath 100 atmospheres of pressure swiftly supplanted by the carefree play of pastoral folk guitar for a twittering avian audience. And so on.

While an escape route of sorts can be found in ‘Dobbiamo Scappare’, where Bruce Haack-like vocoder exhortations drift disembodied around a rudimentary bass pulse, for the most part listening to URI is rather like comparing photographs to their negatives. Garbini’s mixed bag of unresolved melodies, fidelities and koan, whose ongoing incompletion implies a contradictory appetite for new scenery and a cocoon-like resistance to new influences, provides many Gordian Knots for more literal-minded listeners to scratch heads over.

Komitas Vardapet
Six Dances
NETHERLANDS MAKKUM RECORDS MR17 / DE PLATENBAKKERIJ PB 006 CD (2016)

Pendulating between flights of filigree and fleeting respite are the fine-tuned fingers of pianist Keiko Shichijo, whose infatuation with the work of sacerdotal Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet recently saw her hidden talents scooped up by Amsterdam’s Makkum label. The clincher: a recital at the Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis, provides the contents of this EP, while the pieces were written during Vardapet’s spell in Paris in 1906, and played on a Steinway just 2.5 decades older. ‘Situation-struck’ Arnold De Boer of the Makkum label was straight away sold, and set about documenting the momentous occasion on 10” and CD formats.

Of Shichijo herself, little is noted, so she shares the obscurity of the object of her devotion, along with an enduring fascination with the music of times and places long gone. Ordained as a priest in his youth, Vardapet composed his early work in late 18th Century Armenia and later, with sponsorship, in Berlin, where he introduced Europeans to folk musics Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish, becoming in time an avowed ethnomusicologist. Though he composed this six-stage cycle for piano, it is informed by his musicological research, drawing themes from folk dances and sounds from instruments such as the dap, shvi, dhol and tar – local variations on instruments such as tambourine, reed pipe and hand drum.

Shichijo (re)animates this mythology with detail and finesse: in ‘Yerangi’ florid arabesques fade to absent-minded lapses that hold a light to the piano’s inner chambers. To her credit, she doesn’t over-egg her reading of instructions such as ‘delicately and majestically’, which Vardapet liberally applied to dances for men and women: the held notes of ‘Unabi’ are brushed lightly by brisk ornamentation; an ambivalent joyousness fueled by the player’s absorption into historical reverie. ‘Shoror’ – the swaying dance for ‘heroic men’ – maintains the majesty, but hangs a question mark on every sustained end-note.

Given the attention to detail, the brevity remains a mystery. ‘Shoror’ towers over at 6:34: enough time to house three other pieces, but probably not enough for a dance to get going. It’s more likely that the cycle was composed as a museum piece, patiently inlaid with the stories and sensibilities of its fading origins, but sufficiently adulterated for the curious listeners who might have been alienated by a direct encounter. Indeed, the days were numbered: Vardapet was arrested on the first day of the Armenian massacre in 1915, and though released with the help of the American ambassador, remained traumatised for the twenty years till his death in 1935. Gone, but thanks to Keiko Shichijo, not forgotten.

Checkmated

Don’t seem to have heard a record from Berlin tuba player Robin Hayward since 2010’s States Of Rushing on Choose Records, an LP whose memorable cover image spoke volumes about the steely precision of this ultra-minimal player who has done so much to chill the bones and cool the jets of many young hot-heads who cluster like flies around the Exploratorium. Hayward’s with us today credited with playing the “microtonal tuba” and joined by Christopher Williams, another Berlin player who carries the contrabass and once made a record with Derek Bailey in 2004. Together, the duo call themselves Reidemeister Move, and on Plays Borromean Rings (CORVO RECORDS core 010) they perform one of Hayward’s compositions. It can’t have escaped your notice that the score – a graphic score, at that – for the piece is printed directly on the record as a picture disk, thus forming a neat packaging of ideas and sound into a single cohesive unit. This sort of imaginative approach is one of the hallmarks of Corvo Records, I think, each release in their small but select catalogue exhibiting a successful marriage of visuals, sound, and packaging.

The graphic score for Borromean Rings is a very precisely-rendered string of information, as severe as computer code, and its sequence or logic is not plain to the untrained eye. Yet the intention behind Borromean Rings is not to create a ring-fenced barrier of inescapable rules, rather to free up the players in some way…the concise text printed within likens the composition to a game for two players, whose rules are intended to help each player “explore continually fresh avenues within the harmonic framework”. In trying to explain this kind of thing to myself, I usually reach for the metaphor of a map, one that’s intended to help the walker find their way around a strange clump of terrain. As for rules-yet-no-rules, I always understood (perhaps wrongly) that this was the essence of Cecil Taylor’s method, when directing his typically epic collaborative works of energy jazz.

Full marks for the concept and the method, then. But Reidemeister Move Plays Borromean Rings isn’t a very exciting listen. The lower-register drones are played with care and precision, but with zero passion; the even-ness of the work starts to grind down the listener in short order, much like a house painter who is skilled at applying a perfectly smooth layer of white paint throughout the house, slowly working in his methodical way. It’s not clear to me how the players are manoeuvring for position, if that’s what the game of Borromean Rings entails; I’m unable to perceive the intended avenues of exploration in what seems to me more like a series of slowly-executed turns on the exact same spot, like two animals circling in a maze. Much as I like the picture disc format, the music suffers from being pressed in vinyl this way, and the surface noise on my copy marred my appreciation of what I suppose is meant to be pristine, blemish-free minimalism.

On the positive side, the sound of these particular instruments is something I can enjoy for long stretches, and there is an unhurried pace to the playing that is evidence of the discipline and skill of both players, able to sustain long tones and extraordinarily precise fingering for long periods of time without once disturbing the chilled atmosphere. Werner Dafeldecker, of Polwechsel fame, did the recording in a church in Brandenburg. The label owner Wendelin Bücher designed the package, and even came up with a logo design for Reidemeister Move; it’s printed quite small, and it’s not quite in the same league as a Black Metal emblem, but it’s a nice touch. Numbered and limited to 300 copies; arrived 26th April 2016.

Russian Mines

The Pyramiden EP (LINEAR OBSESSIONAL LOR 088) is by Project Mycelium, a duo of electronic musicians Luke Brennan and Lorenzo Santangeli from Hackney; they describe their working method as piecing together “minimalist fragments of acoustic samples”, and have previously had a short record called Pulse released on this label. Pyramiden is derived from the sounds of water and steel, and appears to be themed on ideas about mining; at any rate, the accompanying PDF file features a series of colour photographs taken by Mary Pearson, depicting a disused mining installation. This locale turns out to be a part of Norway annexed by Russia in 1925, when they claimed mining rights; nobody lives there now though, and the installation is completely abandoned.

We have noted before how disused industrial sites (especially mines) evidently have a particular fascination for visual and sound artists, and recent instances of this trend include Franck Vigroux’s Entrailles and Ogrob’s work investigating the Staffelfelden mine shaft. I kind of like Pearson’s photos, even though they are very prosaic, because they fit into the overall pattern of her work and her concerns; among other things, she is frequently drawn to remote and hostile environments, and you can’t get much more forlorn than Pyramiden, this distant part of Isafjordur on the west coast of Spitzbergen. At least she actually visits these places to get her photos, presumably exerting some physical effort and undergoing hardships thereby, whereas I doubt if Brennan and Santangeli even strayed very far from their hip pad in Hackney to create this weedy effort. Their music as Project Mycelium is competent enough, but a very pedestrian reworking of water and steel sound samples, resulting in a plodding, literal sound-picture of what they think a mineshaft might sound like. Very ordinary piece of lite-industrial textured noise. From 25th November 2016.

Suomalaista Elektroakustista Musiikkia: seven compositions of intriguing soundscapes

Various Artists, Suomalaista Elektroakustista Musiikkia / Finnish Electroacoustic Music, Creelpone CP 217 CD

The birth years of the seven composers of electroacoustic music appearing here on this disc range from 1929 to 1952 so the original release by the Fennica Nova label cannot have been earlier than the late 1970s and I am guessing the record came out around 1980. (I have since realised the original release date was 1978.) Listeners will discover a very interesting range of soundscapes here though several do seem very restrained, even a little formal. All seven compositions are very good though some stand out more than others. It becomes a matter of personal preference as to which the seven tracks deserve more prominence than the others.

Paavo Heininen’s “Maiandros” is a piano-based piece featuring jazzy-sounding piano experimentation and insertions of piano string manipulations. The sounds that emerge seem familiar and yet strange. Jarmo Sermila’s “Electrocomposition I” is an arresting space-ambient melody with strange bubble noises and a grand rising-and-falling finale. As its title, “Pisces” suggests, Jukka Ruohomaki’s contribution includes field recordings of the sea and amorphous methods and strange effects hinting at the numinous nature of the marine environment. Perhaps the best music has been saved for last with Herman Rechberger’s boisterous “Cordamix” which packs in string-based tunes from Greece, India, Japan and other places into six minutes of repeating cacophony.

Hardly a dull moment is to be found here, even in those tracks where the music doesn’t jump out and threaten to drag you by the scruff of your mangy neck out into the blue yonder but instead is content to pursue its own path regardless of who’s following. The folks at Fennica Nova certainly had a good ear for electroacoustic music and knew a good piece when they discovered it. You wonder if this compilation represents a small snapshot of the formal electroacoustic scene in Finland some 30+ years ago.

Contact: Broken Music

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Stray Dogs
And The Days Began To Walk
UKRAINE KVITNU 48 CD (2016)

On paper there’s not a lot to distinguish the murky, downtempo minimalism of Belgian post-techno duo Stray Dogs (Frederik Meulyzer and Koenraad Ecker) from peers such as Raime and Emptyset in that well-eked theatre of interstitial operations, though they do show gratifying humanity where po-faced aloofness is often the norm. Their take on industrial techno subordinates the pre-sets to man-ufactured polyrhythms that see muscular limbs reaching through perpetual darkness; tribal drums clattering through cinematic synth-scapes and dub effects echoing the much-loved motif of urban decay. Constant tension between these dynamics amasses a potent, ritualistic energy.

So, while And The Days Began To Walk is likely to please many a serious and sedentary listener, messrs Meulyzer and Ecker often write with choreography in mind: their work over the past few years has included commissions for theatre and contemporary dance as well as more standard AV collaborations, and on this occasion choreographers Ina Christel Johanneseen and Stephen Laks benefit from their competent composition. One earlier video shows the pair blasting live cello and drums onto a set piece that sees a sea of lithe bodies contorting like molten rubber zombies in one turmoiled tableau after another. The musicians remain partially veiled throughout, as if to blur into uncertainty their diegetic relationship to this frenzy. Thus this album slots easily into the ‘soundtrack without a film’ category and it might have been a contender for a place on the new Blade Runner soundtrack, were that not already taken. It might even have had a cleansing effect on such doggerel as the ‘rave’ scene in Matrix Reloaded, though this association would probably have killed the duo’s credibility altogether.

Love and Peace: a beautiful set of highly expressive solo piano performances

Girma Yifrashewa, Love & Peace, Unseen Worlds, CD UW13 (2014)

Lovers of highly expressive solo piano performances and fans of Ethiopian traditional / folk music genres are in for an unexpected treat in this album of five short piano-only pieces by Girma Yifrashewa. Throughout this recording Yifrashewa expresses his hopes for love, understanding and harmony among all the peoples of the world; and celebrates aspects of Ethiopian culture, Christian Orthodox spirituality and the majesty of Ethiopia’s physical geography. The album’s pared-down style – this is all just Yifrashewa and his piano, no more and no less – demonstrates the man’s skill in coaxing an astonishing array of emotions and moods, often in the space of just a few minutes.

Each track is distinctive in its own way and has very individual melodies and motifs, some of which however can be familiar to armchair students of Ethiopian music – this is especially so of the sombre track “Semenen” which uses a key or mode of traditional Ethiopian music that shows up on some of my copies of various of Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques releases. While each song can express a variety of feelings, overall one or two emotions are dominant, from the mostly wistful and plaintive “The Shepherd With The Flute” to the celebratory “Chewata” and the dark and intense “Semenen”, a piece that refers to a transitory state between being dead and being alive. The album starts on a fairly hopeful and upbeat note and from the fourth track on develops a more ambivalent and complex landscape of feelings and moods. But whatever the mood is on a particular song, it’s sure to capture the listener’s attention and hold it spellbound.

Beautiful in its apparent simplicity yet turning out to be more complicated than it appears, and giving the impression that it has much more to say than it’s already doing, this album has a very strong hypnotic quality. It can be surprisingly soothing as well even as it acknowledges the darker, sadder moments of life. You won’t believe that solo piano compositions can be so succinct in pinning down the complexity of human feeling and desire.

Process Code

Last noted English player Phil Maguire in late 2016 with a very limited CDR he made for Linear Obsessional. Here he is again with a cassette tape called smll hand / dctfl hnd (DRONE WARFARE TAPES DW005), containing seven tracks all identified by lower-case strings of gibberish characters which may have leaped out one day from a codebase stored somewhere on github, meaning little to human beings. Although this is an “old” release (from 2014) I’m prepared to give it the time of day, as we enjoy Maguire’s process art music very much. The 2016 album was made using a Raspberry Pi, but I have no information or insights as to how this cassette came about, and I remain content to wallow in the single-minded unvarying tones that emanate from its core, emitting patterns and regular shapes with an obsessive insistence. There’s something quite inhuman, yet strangely satisfying, about the way these eerie sounds coalesce and change, and they breed and multiply like alien life forms which have dropped down to earth from a microscopic galaxy. Virtually impossible to second-guess what directions Maguire might wish to be taking us, yet while we’re here under this steel canopy it seems the most natural place on earth. From 25th October 2016.

Depth Of Field

Service Supreme

Cutting a similar path to Aussie drone-based groovers (and associates) like Oren Ambarchi, The Necks, Simon James Phillips and Matthew Philip Hopkins, the Australia-based trio Great Waitress (Magda Mayas, Monika Brooks and Laura Altman) are a revealing new puzzle piece in a distinctly antipodean improvised music scene: an identity-subsuming, New World tradition of tonality tinkering and free-floating, low-frequency harmonics that suffuse space with the no-nonsense savour of a long-nosed cab sauv. Possessed of the prowess that comes with conservatory training, the trio’s depersonalised apparition of piano, accordion and clarinet prises open space with a knife’s width of elbow play; pushing minimal phrases to the point of constraint, then further, into a vortex between ambient amnesia and semi-improvised composition, tweaking, teasing and even torturing pitch to a neck-hair tingle before the spectral mass solves into a tarpaulin-shrouded fog. Hue (ANOTHER DARK AGE ADA006 LP) is said to summarise the two prior albums, released since Great Waitress’ 2011 formation; a nascency that stands in relief to the group’s full-bodied harmonic cohesion, yet also a reminder of how recently this ‘scene’ has cohered.

A Field in England

Highly approachable guitar & electronics post-rock from Bristol on The Road To The Unconscious Past (ECHOIC MEMORY EM005), even if it sounds less suggestive of its polished urban provenance than of some anonymous idyll. John Scott aka Stereocilia fans out a familiar formula for tape loops and synth-based drones and takes flight on Stars Of The Lid-style Kosmiche angel wings, his effervescent efforts passing in and out of focus, exuding clear contentment in an echo-based semi-present haze. Till side B anyway, when ‘Infinite’ – the closest we have to a cosmic jam – pulses into view on an ELEH-style hypnodrone, issuing trains of serrated guitar lines in all directions and pushing up the listener’s pulse some. But this pleasing push of the envelope is quickly curbed in ‘Sustain/Release’ with the restoration of the preceding pastoralia; a regressive move after such a promising surge into new territory and a general reflection of the unfulfilled promise of the album as a whole, which could really do with moving a little farther afield from its starting point than it does.

Rocking Out

‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…’ begins James Joyce’s Ulysses, though surely few of the novel’s well-meaning readers have made the acquaintance of ‘the superior, the very reverend John Conmee S.J’ in the ‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter, for it’s an assuredly arduous journey to reach this point, let alone the book’s final affirmation, especially for those prone to distraction and it is from this section and sentiment that François Sarhan pulls the title for his recent installation piece Wandering Rocks / Commodity Music (LA MUSE EN CIRCUIT ALM007), where visitors passing through the encircling sound field play the part of the rocks adrift and a fragment of James Joyce’s reading of said text infuses this 35-minute long, electroacoustically-enhanced improvisation for prepared piano, guitar (quartet, Zwerm) and electronics with so despondent an antidote to an otherwise ostensible attitude of passive attentiveness as can be wrought when even the painfully quotidian satire of Joyce’s post-heroic modernist masterpiece represents an Olympian ambition to the media-deadened senses, perhaps eliciting in our composer a sense of resignation that few listeners will probe the surface of this friendly flow of naturalistic timbres and textures – an emulation by means of extended technique of the elemental components (rocks, waves and synthetic turquoise breeze) of the seashore photograph on the cover – to penetrate beyond the point of attention wandering from one rock to the next, moments of cognitive dissonance in their fitful overlappings – though becoming markedly more pronounced as the piece ages its way into Commodity Music, where a gush of anti-capitalist rhetoric to heavy phasing and an almost oriental modal arpeggiation puts the proverbial fat-cat among the proletariat to yield a more strident, pointillistic energy to our hitherto soft-focus panorama, which occasion Sarhan utilises to reflect upon the ‘sad truth that music per se is disappearing from our life… because of our difficulties to focus (sic) on an exclusive and demanding concentration to listen to it…’, before going on to lay blame upon the plastic wrapped vacuum of televisual culture as the cause of popular culture’s almost anhedonic disinterest in Art, and offering this digest version of his expansive and physical sonic experience as a concession to such vicissitudes… so should one listen to it on headphones? No.

Bells Never End

Andreas Usenbenz
Bells Breath
GERMANY KLANGGOLD KG021 LP (2017)

Though frequently indistinguishable from one another, drone and ambient recordings are often categorised in terms of tonality and resultant emotionality; ‘dark’, ‘blissful’, ‘atonal’ and so on. Notable for its indifference towards such niceties, Andreas Usenbenz’s Bells Breath explicitly positions itself within the frame of early 1960s Minimal Art and its abandonment of pre-existing frames of reference in order to provide a fresh experience of art as one of ‘self-awareness on behalf of the audience’. I have to confess to being confused by this description, as it sounds uncomfortably similar to the kind of rationale employed to promote bible-based ecclesiastical dogma in pre-literate societies. Is it a sly dig at the religious pretensions of self-appointed ‘experts’ in the art industry?

Deeper theological mysteries might be discerned in the two sides of this clear vinyl artefact, which are inhabited by a Holy Trinity of pieces of a cold, metallic aspect akin to Jacob Kirkegaard’s otological ilk: endless glacial, hypnotic whorl set out to either sedate and stupefy listeners into catatonic passivity (a mission it manages in mere minutes on this chilly, grey day at least) or to convey them into a realm of supra-linguistic contemplation. Either effect is complemented by the record’s situation between four black-and-cloudy ‘art print’ panels that telegraph the music’s sublime and mundane effects.

As the title suggests, Usenbenz fashioned the piece for an installation from recordings of bells tolling in the Minster church in Ulm, Germany, to mark the 125th anniversary of the church spire’s completion. He follows a familiar process of layering the decelerated tonal recordings to achieve a deepening effect – though to these ears one more akin to an opiate of the masses than the gesture of heaven-bound ascension that might better befit the piece’s architectural paradigm. That said, the Minster church is a Lutheran one, so a protestant might conceivably argue that Usenbenz’s pensive radiations are better suited to a more critical theology than that provided by the pomp and drama of Catholicism. Either way, it makes for a captivating listen, however many such records one has listened to.

Secrets Of The Sun

One of three items received from the label Every Contact Leaves A Trace…the odd English micro-label from whom we last heard in 2014, specialising in quite marginal sound art with a somewhat conceptual dimension…they also continue to adhere to their weird packaging strategy of issuing CDRs in cardboard sandwiches held together with bulldog clips.

Helen White is an artist in residence at The Watershed gallery in Bristol, specifically operating in the “Pervasive Media Studio”. Her work there is something to do with the environment, and she’s interested in working with data collection to make sound. On Solar Wind Chime, the CDR we have in front of us, there are three manifestations of her experiments with satellite data. What it comes down to is that we’re hearing “energy being released by the sun”, which I naively assume is being emitted and captured as some form of radio signal (my knowledge of astro-physics is less than zero). If you went to the Watershed, you might be able to see Helen making a visual representation from the same data sources. Come to think of it, the insert showing a network of overlapping and intersecting purple lines might be just that. I see from the web page that her work received coverage from Physics World and The Weather Channel.

We could note that Disinformation / Joe Banks was doing similar things in 1996, though I hasten to add I don’t think art should be seen as a “competition” to be the first artist to use a particular method or technique. That line of thought tends to see conceptual art and sound art (and fine art) as little more than a series of “gimmicks”, where success depends on being the first – and the only – person to use such a gimmick. What interests me in this instance is how similar source data can, in different hands, create two totally distinct forms of sound art. Disinformation’s Stargate record, which presented radio emissions from the sun and noise storms associated with sunspot activity, sounds completely different to Helen White’s more soothing Solar Wind Chime. Stargate was a record of “the seashore effect” as some have called it, a somewhat threatening roaring sound, which to my demented imagination suggested the terrifying power of solar flares. Solar Wind Chime is, by contrast, a rather benign if slightly strange droning tone. Through Helen White’s vision, the sun is certainly a smiling entity shedding its warm rays upon the earth, much like the sun as drawn in a book of Renaissance science.

Solar Wind Chime is also surprisingly unengaging as a listening experience. I applaud the method: White has noted the recent growth in scientific datasets and their availability, and set herself the task of “giving form to an aesthetically bereft mass of data”. Presumably this means that the digital data by itself was not something that could really be considered art, and she found ways to reprocess it into an aesthetically pleasing shape. One method has been the processing of real-time data from the satellite into this droning sound. It comes close to being music. But it’s difficult to find much of interest in this unvarying long tone; it does change, but not in very interesting ways, and the basic inertness of the source material keeps showing through. Me, I like more sublimation, not just process for its own sake. A more successful instance of what I’m talking about is Yird Muin Starn, the 2013 record by Kaffe Matthews and Mandy McIntosh. Part of this work used data derived from star constellations to reprocess field recordings made in the Galloway Forest, and the results were far more imaginative and aesthetically pleasing. However, this is still a worthwhile and interesting experiment, and it’s nice to have these snapshots of the work published in CD form. From 29th September 2016.