Tagged: minimal

Cautious Engagement

Lucio Capece / Kevin Drumm / Radu Malfatti
The Volume Surrounding The Task

For all you staunch fans of minimalism out there, here comes a trio of the notorious improviser/sound artist/composer Capece, Drumm and Malfatti, recorded by Fabrice Moinet while on their their 2011 tour of France, Belgium and Switzerland. This is from their date at Q-02 in Brussels; since 2006, Q-02 is a venue specifically for “…experimental contemporary music and sound art”.

Lucio Capece has regular musical partnerships with Axel Dörner and Mika Vainio (RIP) among others. He has also worked with musicians as diverse as Birgit Ulher, Toshimaru Nakamura and the excellent Lee Patterson. More recently, he has extended his practice into the art world by expanding his palette of “…tools like Flying Speakers hanging from Helium Balloons, Speakers as Pendulums, Analog synthesiser, Sine Waves and Noise Generators, Drum Machine, Ultra-Violet Lights”, according to his Wikipedia page. I believe he has a collaboration with Burkhard Beins, Martin Kuchen and Paul Vogel out on Mikroton this year, which would be worth seeking out.

Kevin Drumm is possibly best known for his 2002 album on Mego, Sheer Hellish Miasma, although his first, self-titled, album surfaced in 1997 on Perdition Plastics. He got in on the ground floor; early on in the upward trajectory of the EAI/tabletop/improv/whatever scene – his base in Chicago allowed him access to players like Jim O’Rourke and Ken Vandermark. He has since maintained a supremely prolific recorded output both solo and with varied collaborators.

A member of the Wandelweiser Collective of composers, Radu Malfatti has described one of his compositions as “…quite open architecture of silence and sounds…” 1 which goes some way to describe what is going on in The Volume Surrounding The Task. A further question thrown up by releases of this kind concerns the inevitable series of events set in motion by the demands of the marketplace – consider the following timeline:

Improvisation – live performance – recording – manufacturing – release into the marketplace – purchase/ownership – otherness – repeated listening – familiarity.

All three players are accomplished technicians of the very highest order, and here the term “extended technique” seems hardly sufficient. The overall sound-field is full of sounds seemingly so alien to the instruments which are producing there is no way to say with any certainty who is actually playing what at any given point. The sleevenotes say Malfatti plays trombone, Drumm electronics and Capece bass clarinet and “preparations”. That’s no help. On first listen, the 40 minutes long The Volume Surrounding The Task seems to be a fairly restrained performance but close listening will reveal a busy and immersive micro sound-world.

There is the sense of cautious engagement with each other. Radu Malfatti never one to do anything hastily. The result is a filigree of sine tones; bass clarinet and trombone verdigris. I’m not sure if it is easy to get a sense of the whole on first listening. In fact, the whole piece comes and goes like a phantom at standard hi-fi room volume. Start pushing the volume up and the high-pitched sine tone-like elements become quite aggressive. I have to say that this performance has an air of solemnity which I find unusual for this kind of music. It has the worn, threadbare patina of Kevin Drumms’ Fender Mustang guitar on the cover of his 2013 Alku Tape release. One of the players, I suspect it’s Malfatti, utilizes a device involving the occasional repetition of loud, amplified breath. There is a generous use of quiet passages, as you might expect from Malfatti’s involvement. Kevin Drumm detours from his usual maximalist exploratory intensity. Capece augments his bass clarinet with “preparations”; electronic artefacts and/or field recordings, just out of sight.

  1. The piece the quote is referring to is Malfatti’s northumberland 4 (2008). The quote taken from Jennie Gottschalk’s book Experimental Music Since 1970.

Mud Men

Great rumbly growly lower-register improv from the Norwegian trio Muddersten on their Karpatklokke (SOFA SOFA555) CD. The tuba player is Martin Taxt, who plays in the microtonal way on that instrument and also uses electronics; we much enjoyed his menacing antics on the recording Pan On Fire, when he did it with the Japanese feedback king Toshimaru Nakamura. Muddersten also boast the guitarist (he also plays tape loops) Håvard Volden from Flymoden, Moon Relay, Nude Ono Sand and The Island Band; and Henrik Olsson, from Gul, Skog Och Dal, Skogen, Slötakvartetten, and Unforgettable H2O, credited here with objects and friction, which means he’s joined the ranks of the “rubbing” improvisers who seize inanimate things and apply the frottage technique with varying degrees of franticness.

The stern and burbling non-music that emerges from Muddersten is supposed to be saying something about a particular kind of cracked muddy terrain and the way that plant matter grows in it, clearly a concern of some import for your Norwegian farmer or keeper of orchards. In keeping with this agricultural theme, the cover photos may depict such terrain, and while the front landscape is a pretty banal image, the inside spread of fissures and scraggly grass will delight viewers who enjoy textures and surfaces in their visual art. The Muddersten men may be somewhat “minimal” in their restrained playing and small-ish gestures, but the sound they create is very far from empty and simplistic, and indeed there’s barely a quiet moment or a smooth surface which they won’t roughen with their scrapey and parpy actions. I assume this says something about the old Nordic ways of ploughing the land in an extremely thorough way, leaving no acre of turf ungrooved, using dragon’s teeth and brass pins. From 3rd January 2017.

Speed Kills

London-based sound artist Louie Rice has been ruining my life for some time now with releases from his labels Wasted Capital Since 2013 and Hideous Replica, home to ultra-minimal reductive electronic music that refuses to explain itself. That mode continues with 33/45, a seven-incher released by Organized Music From Thessaloniki, which makes plain its intent to alienate the listener with its severe sleeve – strange futuristic grid imagery on the cover, and stark black typography on the back. Indeed the press release is proud of the cryptical and opaque stance presented thusly, describing “two tracks marked only by their playing speed and no additional info at hand”. As with all minimal art, I suppose, the intent is limit the options faced by the audience, to encourage (some would say force) our total concentration on the message at hand. This particular outing contains many fragments of broken noise, which resemble snapped pieces of scrap metal being popped open in your face, recordings of which have been scrambled and rendered into nonsense by very drastic editing. On the first side, these noises are suspended in a near-vacuum, with only an insistent cyber-pulse to remind us that we’re still alive and not trapped in some conceptual science-fiction Hell. The B-side, which plays at 45, frames the noises in a setting which I expect we could read as Louie Rice’s idea of “disco” music. It’s often tempting to think that the contemporary generation of experimenters are influenced by Techno music as much as by the 20th-century schools of musique concrète and electro-acoustic, and indeed this is a theme that has been carried on in much of the discourse surrounding Mego, glitch, the Cologne school, Raster-Noton, and many others since the late 1990s. To his credit, Rice (and his compadres Alves and Asnan) seems to be developing his own uniquely “evil” and alien take on the genre, seething with implied threat and hostile gestures. From 5th December 2016.

Strange Delights

Haxel Garbini

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

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.


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

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.