Tagged: piano

Dour Revenants

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March of the Dead

Lucie Vítková / Jolana Havelková
Návrh Na Zmenu Partitury
SLOVAKIA LOM LOM03 CD (2013)

This is a collection of highly interpretative solo performances that pay tribute to the work and influence of 19th century Czech composer and conductor, František Kmoch, who was known for his idiosyncratic take on traditional military march pieces, drawing heavily on Czech folklore and folk songs. These compositions communicated his implacable patriotism, which outside of the music’s local popularity is said to have so chafed against encroaching Austro-Hungarian imperial ideals of the era to the point at which he was even allegedly excluded from pedagogical duties. Our modern-day interpreter, the ‘experimental photographer’ Jolana Havelková, seems at pains to categorise the allusiveness of her ‘alterations’, which metamorphose the written score into a set of quadrilateral abstractions, or ‘graphical scores’: vehicles for one lackadaisical instrumental or other, featuring accordion, organ or harmonica. These attractive, if decidedly unmusical visual spectacles can be found online or in the sizeable expanse of the CD’s fold out insert.

Havelková’s ‘allusiveness’ concerns the music’s consummate vagueness, which might be conceptualised as the imperfection of memory or the memorial. For the realisation – which is as mysterious to me as the language in which it is all named – we have another Czech composer and performer – Lucie Vítková – to thank. Many of her performances took place around Kmoch’s (and her, I assume) hometown of Kolín, in locations significant to the composer, as if to summon (or channel) some vestige both of the composer’s spirit and that of the city itself, to which Kmoch contributed so significantly as to have earned an annual festival in his honour. Monochrome stills of these Spartan surroundings can be viewed at the release’s website, and so silent are they that Vítková must have experienced total immersion in her performance. This is certainly evident in the recordings, though whether the listener also stands to experience ethereal connection with something ‘other’ is another matter entirely. It may indeed be a strained undertaking for the melodically fixated: performances are pruned to the shadow, with few hints of the life in Kmoch’s original compositions: a dour revenant rather than full-hearted renaissance.

Keyed instruments exhibit the more sincere drama on offer: the organ opening (‘Pozdrav Vlasti’) is more bleak than liturgical, though returning in ‘Na Stríbropenném Labi’ in a more demented wise; notes dancing like fireflies in a Svankmejer animation. These sections are among the most eventful, if only by virtue of the curious meandering and ecclesiastical silence. There is also the sustained hammering of a piano in ‘Mesícek Svítí’, barely implies the march and is repetitious in a manner more analytical than exclamatory. By contrast, much of this might be consigned to purgatory: a bath house bevy of female voices cohering wearily in a grey resignation (‘Moravské Lilie’; ‘Moravian Lilies’). It is typical of much of the singing: pained as though briefly free from imprisonment. Similar spaces are devoted to droning accordion, handclaps and sometimes little more than the elements. As an outsider to this austere expression of ‘national consciousness’, it’s difficult to find foothold in this revival project, in spite of the second wind in the latter part of the disc. The motives for its undertaking are mysterious: is it merely the allure of unearthing of a forgotten curio, or an unfolding process of cultural psychoanalysis?

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Unprepared Piano

Eliška Cílková
Pripyat Piano (The Zone Of Chernobyl)
POLAND MATHKA MTHK015 CD (2013)

The bare-boned performances audible here issue from improvisations on pianos found in Chernobyl. Since 2010, Chronicler Eliška Cílková has made several journeys into the veritable ghost town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000, which was abandoned and looted immediately after the 1986 nuclear disaster. Over the course of three years she located, after extensive foraging, a total of nine pianos in varying states of disrepair: her journey taking her through crumbling schools, apartment blocks and a concert hall. The pieces she recorded possess an understandable lack of veneer, the pianos having stood neglected for some 27 years, and she cautions against expectations of the melodic. Rather, her effort stands as an audio monument to a city ‘that has closed itself to the world once and for all’.

Echoing in the silence of spaces accessible only by those with a special permit, these musical relics sound more distinguished in dilapidation than they might have in their prime and, thanks to the exploratory gestures that dominate the collection, offer an interesting array of dissonances. Many pianos bear signs of senseless brutality, the work of chance vandals. Cílková ‘plays’ the gutted remains of one specimen in ‘House of Art’, a maudlin reminder of the nadir of human whimsy and experience in an infamous part of the world; one alluded to by the mind-reading, wish-fulfilling faculty within ‘The Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s Stalker; a villainous sentiment Cílková practically dramatizes in a semblance of sinister footsteps (and the real strumming of desiccated strings) in the melodramatic ‘Piano Apartment II’, which is a rare moment of near composition amid a Sturm und Drang of metallic clangs, drones and thuds. The commemoration of desolation hits fever pitch in ‘Torsos of Non-playing Pianos’, comprising recordings from several smashed and plundered specimens: all slithering scrapes and next-door knocks, it’s virtually electroacoustic in essence. After three years of research, these thirty-five minutes may constitute a cold and short-lived exercise, but as a reminder of harder times they satisfy almost as much as a Solzhenitsyn novel.

The Green Dome

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Many aspects of great interest to Cycloïdes (GD STEREO GD023), a recording made by Jocelyn Robert for Geoff Dugan’s GD Stereo label. Me, I’ve had a soft spot for Dugan’s releases ever since Psychogeographical Dip and The Architecture of the Incidental were released in the late 1990s. That’s right, he’s very concerned with sound art as it obtains in the urban environment, and he’s continuing those preoccupations with psychogeography, situationism and the dérive with this new release, and it so happens Mr Robert shares a lot of common ground with him. This record of piano improvisations is supposed to be asking pointed questions about architecture and music; Dugan declares outright he wants to release “artists whose work challenges the boundaries, rules and definitions of architecture and music”, and Robert fits the profile – he trained as an architect but turned his back on the drawing board in 1989 and has since been pursuing opportunities to position his music in a very specific contemporary urban context. He sees music as a nexus of “physical, political and geographical forces”, rather than inhabiting a stand-alone niche which we might call “fine art” or “culture”. To be honest, I’m not entirely clear how these strategies are enacted by Robert, but he does come close to creating a very interesting contemplative and personal “space” for the listener with this record, much as if he were building a personal dome or canopy for us to wander around in solitude.

This he does by exploiting a particular facet of the Disklavier, a computer-based piano keyboard. When he would play a “wrong” note or make a mistake, it would remain in the Disklavier’s memory; so for Cycloïdes, he kept the mistakes in, and used them as a set of rules to guide his next move in the improvisation. Get the idea? It’s music that’s building on itself, “reaffirming its instant past in an almost cyclic manner”. It’s also interesting, although not remarked on by Jocelyn Robert in his notes, to suppose that there is a constant tension between human (performance) and machine (memory) taking place, a situation where the blind perfection of the computer is almost working in opposition to the intuitive and errant movements of the pianist. I further suppose that this is a situation that might escalate into an absurd cloning process not unlike the scene in Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse’s broomstick slaves get out of control. Anyway, I should have said this at the start, but this is also beautiful music to listen to, and fans of Morton Feldman’s piano compositions should check this out instantly. Brittle, precise, clean, yet very emotional somehow. We last heard this Canadian composer / musician on Monsonic, his 2010 LP of elaborate electo-acoustic layerings. From 11 November 2013.

Blue Baroque

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It’s been about five years since we heard from the Scottish sound artist Brian Lavelle, when he released Ustrina on the Italian AFE Records label, a record which seemed to perceive the simple forest canopy as the gateway to a spiritual experience. He’s here now with My Hands Are Ten Knives (QUIET WORLD FORTY TWO), a title which may have led you to expect a slicing attack of sonic violence or at least some impression of “sharp edges” in the sound, as befits this Edward Scissorhands-styled description. Instead, Lavelle offers a hypnotic ambient drone with rather soft beguiling edges, but also one with remarkably opaque and near-mystical qualities, and a hard core of rigid concentration at the centre. As we listen we can glance with one eye at his processes, which usually involve blending the textures from field recordings with electronic tones and electric guitar music, but that doesn’t begin to account for this haunting sense of the other-worldly. After just 30 minutes, the patient listener is rewarded with a harmonic epiphany that seems to resolve the secretiveness of the work’s first half. The mystical enigma is not exactly explained away, but we can perceive its contours better. I’d be interested now to hear his record from 2000 called How To Construct a Time Machine which was released by Bake Records in the Netherlands. Indeed that particular item was one of the faves of Mr Quiet World, who released this. Lavelle has also done collaborations with the uncategorisable musician Richard Youngs, and others groups such as Space Weather and Fougou, besides running two labels techNOH and Dust, Unsettled. From 17 September 2013.

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Through the Mysterious Barricade at Holysloot, Holland (QUIET WORLD FORTY SIX) is an astonishing record of powerful piano improvisations by the American Fluxus composer Philip Corner. As I glance at some of the records we’ve received in recent years when his name comes up, I’m amazed at the depth and breadth of Corner’s remarkable achievements. Member of a group called Tone Roads in the 1960s with Malcolm Goldstein and Charlie Morrow. Experimenter with gamelan forms to produce long-form minimal metal percussion pieces. Using calligraphic methods he learned from a Korean expat to create graphical scores of great character. Notorious deconstructer of a piano at a Fluxus event in Germany. I also refer you to T. Shrubsole’s excellent research he conducted for this review. To this list of achievements we clearly have to add the gift of “free improvisation”, but once again even that genre or style of playing has been co-opted and made by Corner into something joyous, something non-academic, replete with spiritual richness, in short something uniquely his own. With the first 38-minute piece, I’m intrigued by the spiky beginnings and bold glissandoes as Corner waves his hands over the open strings inside the piano, then I’m overwhelmed by the powerful block chords and fortissimo-pedal effects that he strikes when the music really picks up its pace, and becomes a delirious and passionate meditation with an intense, thickly-clotted sound full of resonating notes and sympathetic vibrations…haven’t heard the likes since Charlemagne Palestine nearly vibrated a grand piano apart on stage at the LMC Festival in London…the power of this non-stop barrage simply increases in intensity, almost becoming violent with stamps and thuds, and only gradually subsiding into a quieter mode where we can once again hear the birdsong through the open window and the creaks on the floor of this home-made recording…a terrifying beauty…Well, Corner’s been doing this particular series of piano improvisations for many years, for his own personal reasons too deep to fathom. Apparently he bases the structure of each improvisation on a composition by Francois Couperin, a baroque tune which is eventually revealed as the “code” of the work when he quotes it (in this instance, not until 30 minutes into the work). These two pieces, recorded in 1989 and 1992, were made in the home of his unwell brother, a fact which may or may not add to the emotional intensity of the works. Quiet World can feel proud of this remarkable release, issued as a signed limited edition item (at any rate, Corner has provided signed business cards for insertion) although it’s not the first time Corner has been released on this label.

A Shimmer of Bronce

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Barry Altschul
The 3Dom Factor
FINLAND TUM RECORDS TUM CD 032 CD (2013)

Joe Fonda’s jaunty and melodically irrepressible tenor saxophone slices into the woody thicket of the rhythm section in this excellent free-jazz album from drummer Barry Altschul; also joined here by bassist Jon Irabagon. The sleeve notes profess a commitment to making the listener “at the very least” feel good; in this they entirely succeed. The close communion of the ensemble playing suggests a band entirely at ease with each other’s playing. This isn’t to say that the 3dom Factor is in any way a cosy listen, the artists clash heads as much as they smooth sonic paths for one another; witness the way the gasping spluttering sax of ‘Martin’s Stew’ yanks the band down a path not immediately obvious from Irabagon’s patiently reiterating bass riff, or the drums skewing the groove on ‘Papa’s Funkish Dance’. The 3dom Factor is a wide-minded stroll around free-jazz and contemporary improv.

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Jean-Luc Fafchamps
Back To…
BELGIUM SUB ROSA SR353 CD (2013)

Cog-like process-music, a central rhythmic spine is examined, twisted, atomised, and quite often discarded entirely. Jean-Luc FafchampsBack To…, here performed by Stephane Ginsburgh, consists of three individual piano pieces that can be combined in multiple configurations. While not attempting all of the suggested orderings, this writer found the standard 123 sequence particularly entertaining; the first piece’s frequent diversions into key-smashing tantrums acting as an effective starter for some of the lighter and winding Reichian passages occurring later. Encompassing a wide range of tones and pressures, this absorbing album holds the attention throughout; rapid minimalist passages abut stormy atonal cloudbursts; near silence introduces sections of intricate ringing beauty; the dense fusion of styles is never over-cooked. Back To… deserves your repeated and close attention; it is a twisting kaleidoscope of an album, shards of noise and melody clashing in complex and fascinating fashion.

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RM74
Two Angles Of A Triangle
USA UTECH RECORDS URCD076 2 x CD (2012)

Two Angles of a Triangle by Reto Mäder alias RM74 is a study in sonic alchemy; the melding of dissonance and concord, noise and stillness, the electronic and acoustic, causticity and sweetness. Comprising tape loops, atonal scraping, echoing prepared piano, gusts of drone, kalimba, and ringing distressed glass, among many other components, this rusting hulk of an album is one to sink yourself in. It finds beauty even in its darker moments; the strummed dusty strings on ‘Spineless’, for instance, contrast wonderfully with the moss-soaked decrepitude of its rotting background ambience. The whole album is also surprisingly song-like given the method in which it’s constructed; loose rhythms and almost folkish melodies present themselves at odd moments, catching the listener unguarded, squinting into the fog of chaos, unexpectedly glimpsing grace amidst the clamour. A subtle and confusingly pretty record, soaked in a wilted sadness and knitted from strands of junk and found-sound.

Un, Deux, Trois

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Un

Les Hauts De Plafond
No Ask Lévrier
FRANCE SATIE CHAPO SC01 LP (2012)

Highbrow yet accessible, this sumptuous sonic melange melds vintage musique concrète’s rigorous exploration for new realms, scattershot syllable poetry and the propulsion of a studio-savvy avant-rock outfit that’s comfortable in any gear. No Ask Lévrier, Les Hauts de Plafond’s four-wheeled fantasy, chugs through forests of mystery with sat-nav flagging up every musical detour along a 40 minute ‘scenic route’, in which sound upon intriguing sound is layered and woven into the next like a patchwork quilt, stitched together by hands adept at intuitive combination; the music suffering not in the least from absence of climax; joy lying largely in wedding one strange sonic situation with another. As a result, you can leave the room and feel certain that someone’s changed the CD while you were out.

Something of an extended radio piece, this recording also belongs in the tradition of live meets sampled sound collage, and while it never quite attains the ecstatic poles of seminal works such as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, nor does it stray into the less enthralling zones. Those familiar with the hardcore collagists (and a personal favourite) Milk Cult will also have some idea what to expect, the miniatures of their Project M-13 exuding a similar penchant for playful mystery, wherein vignettes of avant-pop collage engender eclectic and serendipitous psychological spaces; a perpetual scrapbook of adventure as in ‘Dieu Est Une Voiture En Plein Phare’, which immerses a metronomic bass in a web of voices and the motor blasts of a car race.

A press shot shows the pensive pair attempting to record pieces of fruit, suggesting a quirky sense of humour and a ‘concrète’ mandate to distil drama from the quotidian. Further homage to the sound-spelunking forefathers can be found in ‘L’insoutenable Objet’, featuring clattering crockery and a deep, squeaky door that opens the portal to Pierre Henry’s Variations Pour Une Porte Et Un Soupir. Les Hauts de Plafond has also been said to broadcast music from a 2CV used as a mobile amplifier, the myth enhancing their capacity to illuminate the sublimely ridiculous within the ostensibly ordinary.

Sylvain Chauveau

Deux

Sylvain Chauveau
Kogetsudai
FRANCE BROCOLI 013 CD (2013)

Sylvain Chauveau’s 10th recording Kogetsudai is the second in a trilogy based on convergence of abstract and natural forms. Where the first part, Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated) drew upon the mysteries of abstract painting, Kogetsudai reflects (and reflects upon) a more eastern phenomenon: Japanese rock gardens, such as Ryoanji in Kyoto, where the piece was conceived. I’m pretty sure Ryoanji was also the site of an incongruous photograph of Rudolf eb.er and Dave Philips, joined by a bevy of Japanese schoolgirls, which I can’t locate right now. Further bemusement notoriously occurs in response to the site itself: 248 square metres’ worth of pebbles raked to resemble… nothing much, leaving many a westerner wondering what they travelled all that way for.

In a similar manner, the Kogetsudai resonates with naturalistic intrigue, oscillating fragile ripples and whorls, from the centre of which issues the odd snatch of haiku-like lyric, delivered so gradually as to force you to pay attention. Emotionally adrift somewhere between Fennesz and Eleh; archetypally minimal; it’s not Francisco Lopez, but it is delicate in construction, every piece just a gossamer layer or so, consisting of location recordings, sine waves or, in ‘Lenta’, soft, suspended piano chords. While I’m not drawn to the laboured vocals – I don’t know – something like a frozen Bill Callahan’s, the tenuous musical gestures are genuinely evocative, suggesting a space outside of time the way Aphex Twin did in his second round of Selected Ambients. Evident is the attention to detail, and a seemingly genuine appreciation of the meditative mentality of Chaveau’s subject matter, which to my ears is a significant accomplishment, given that one cannot simply ‘turn Japanese’.

minizza-a-rebours

Trois

Minizza
A Rebours
FRANCE BROCOLI 014 CD (2013)

To realise a long-term ambition, French electronic trio Minizza recruited six collaborators for their third and most considered recording: a radio rendering of J.K. Huysman’s dense novella about a decadent misanthropist named Jean Des Esseintes. In the novel, Des Esseintes retires with his many worldly possessions from Paris – sick of society and its tiresome mores – to a house in the countryside, where he spends day upon day keeping strange hours, reflecting upon and rejecting orthodox literature, criticism, Catholic writings, and rewarding his senses to the gills with the finest substances he can treat them to. He also encrusts the shell of a tortoise with gems, causing its death; an indulgence analogous to the lifestyle that nearly kills Des Esseintes himself. Seemingly sedated by the knots of memories and sensory experiences past and present, the narrative proceeds quite ponderously at times, and is best reserved for times devoid of distraction.

Similar attention may be required here, for though an easier experience than the novel, it’s not a casual one. Realised for French radio, Francophones will certainly fare better than I in appreciating it in its fullness, though I begrudge it not the inaccessibility: rather the French vocals engender a sense of emotional distance analogous to the protagonist’s. Besides, I couldn’t see an English version living up to this standard, to be honest: the obsessive yet languid atmosphere is far more suggestive of a continental decadence than a conceivably more inept, British one. As if to drive the point home, in ‘De La Nature Des Choses’ a Gallic slur slinks sleazily behind a familiar bassline, through the same firelit drawing room as in Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Melody’, and offering the set one of its more seductive sections. That said, the narrator’s resonant, often breathy delivery I find difficult to correlate with as sickly a figure as Des Esseintes, unless it is a self-dramatising interior monologue, where none can taint his schizoid, scholarly reveries.

Arrangements are on the whole airy, moody and evocative of Des Esseintes’ sensory forays. Instrumentation is spare, implying precariousness and single-mindedness, and further by layers of soft, echoing electronics, seemingly bathing the voice in sickly rays of light. ‘Dominé Par Des Abstractions’ delights especially in the ebb and flow of it. These faint sonic veneers sometimes admit voices: revenants from Des Esseintes’ distant, debauched past; figments of the dimly remembered, lit by faint flickers of Badalamenti-esque jazz. As it approaches the final stages, the atmosphere becomes quite disorienting, culminating in a radio dial blitz in ‘Agonie’, but all in all it’s an enticing listen, as rich in tone and pretension; as ornate and fleeting as the world of Des Esseintes, and perhaps as appropriate to specific points in time as a reading of the novel itself.

Doll on a Music Box

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Hair Police

For a record of dedicated single-minded droning music, you could do worse than dip your fuzzy face into a bowlful of the NAR LP (BORING MACHINES BM045) from DuChamp. This Italian composer is based in Berlin and has devoted her debut LP in search of a sound that evokes the memory of her mother. This Proustian quest is focused on a single sound, that of her mother’s hair-dryer, which she studiously attempts to recreate using musical instruments (keyboards or guitars) to create drones, and each of the five tracks approaches this psychological task in a slightly different way; some are comforting, some are dark, most of them are extremely hypnotic in some manner. It’s as though DuChamp were lying on the psychiatrist’s couch and putting herself under a hypnotic trance, the better to delve into hidden memories. What confessional revelations might she revelate? Not much, as it turns out, as none of this music makes much effort to transcend the simple mechanics of process art, despite her high-minded aspirational titles such as ‘A way to grasp joy immediately’. I’m all in favour of retrieving childhood memories however, so maybe this record has a personal dimension for its creator which could qualify it as a success. She herself has not been in pursuit of exorcising family demons, and she speaks of a feeling of comfort; she associates the hair-dryer drone with compassion and stability. The actual sounds she makes have a lot of weight, and a conviction which arises from the way these drones don’t vary much for the duration. I particularly like ‘A worship’ with its very simple three-note motif and the creator’s heartfelt ritual chanting; it’s a strong combination of the stern and implacable meeting up with the delicate and wispy. DuChamp is also a scientist who works with the NMR Biosensor and curates an annual music event called Occultofest. From February 2013.

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Doll By Doll

Dolls Come To Life (NO LABEL) is a team-up between the singer / pianist Michelle Cross and the experimental composer Joe Frawley. We’ve followed Frawley’s solo works for a while and regular readers will know we have a lot of time for his exquisitely-rendered miniaturist dreamscapes. He seems to be the ideal co-creator for this album of wistful and enigmatic songs and tunes, which expresses some poignant observations about the human comedy through the metaphor of dolls, marionettes, and other playthings refracted through a slightly darkened view of childhood. Both artistes are clearly concerned with narrative themes in music (a characteristic which many 20th century modernists tried to destroy), and are incurable romantics on a par with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The album is structured around Cross’s songs, and while she may not have the gift for a memorable melody, there is much craft in her playing and her singing voice is distinctive. Her take on the old chestnut ‘My Favorite Things’ is one highlight; her voice is husky and desolate, and she sounds like a cross between a recovering junkie and a psychopath, acting out the role of the creepy family member they keep locked in the attic. Julie Andrews fans would probably wither into a raisin when they hear this rendition, but it’s got an astringency that fits the keynote of this release. Frawley’s contributions are the arrangements and sound collages; he takes the album off into the realms of dreamland with his unusual electronic compositions, and the snippets of spoken word which leak into the fabric in his characteristic manner. Even the singer’s voice is passed through his sampler, allowing him to weave fantasy versions of the songs. His compacted melanges of sound are never less than beautiful and always highly evocative. Rather than opt for the all-out surrealist experience that he has concocted on previous solo works, he uses his effects very sparingly, in service of the themes and narratives suggested by Cross. It’s true the storyline is allusive and doesn’t have any clear payoff, so what happens when Dolls Comes To Life isn’t exactly clear, but that’s where your own imagination comes into play. Guest musicians Win Ridabock and Tracy Kroll add flutes and percussion, and Brandy Pudzis did the cover art. From 14 February 2013.

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Tonka Toys

English improviser Kev Hopper has his solo electronic music compositions collected on Tonka Beano (LOR037), released by his friend and collaborator Richard Sanderson on Richard’s Linear Obsessional Recordings label. English improv veteran Hopper constructed all the music using Reaktor, which is unusual music software in that it allows (positively encourages) its users to take the modular parts of the system apart and reassemble it on their own terms, thereby arriving at wholly unique settings, samples, interfaces, and music-generating scripts. On the face of it, this seems a very creative and artistic alternative to simply settling for pre-sets on a keyboard or using any given music-manipulation software out of the box. To his credit, Hopper has certainly succeeded in devising some highly unusual blipperies and blopperies here, and he aligns or overlays them in eye-popping combinations, using a lot of good humour in the process; as if aware of the vague nausea that can be induced by such odd digital emanations, he names one track ‘Indigestion 2012’. There are atonal tracks and melodic tunes (the latter even have a pulsebeat sometimes), and Hopper exhibits his knowledge of musique concrète and glitch music of the 1990s. Even so, I regret to report I found the album mightily unengaging; there isn’t enough spirit or force in the compositions or the execution, and each track toddles on its path in a disappointingly polite, ineffectual manner. Each tune seems boxed-in, unable to break out of its virtual flattened existence in the machine. One sincerely wishes that Hopper would exhibit more boldness, a touch more of the fire and passion we associate with his bass-playing in the band Stump. If purchased as a download, you get a 22-page booklet of explanatory notes and screenshots of the Reaktor settings; the physical limited edition CDR was issued with inserts. From 18 February 2013.

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MetaLanguage

From Switzerland, the Insub Meta Orchestra release a rather marginal experiment on the CDR archive#2 [insub40]. By marginal, I mean they seem to be exploring these pathways chiefly for their own purposes, and probably use the information as part of their private “archive” to assist with continuous improvement. On ‘Line 1’, they hold a single tone for 18 minutes, doing their best to gradually increase the “timbre and spectrum” of the drone; although this slow-moving exercise threatens to be a completely sterile non-event, the music suddenly catches fire for the last five minutes, and the players come close to generating the “sonic micro-climate” they are aiming for. They see themselves as sonic scientists perhaps, creating tiny worlds with their own atmospheres and galaxies. There’s certainly enough of them to equip a well-funded laboratory; 45+ musicians from Switzerland and elsewhere are reckoned as members of the Meta Orchestra. On one level, they get results simply by aggregating so much sound in one place at once. ‘Line 2’ is another long and continuous piece, divided into two or three episodic “blocks”; the semi-structured nature of the work will only reveal itself through changes and shifts that pass by at a dreary, glacial rate. None of the sounds made by orchestra members are particularly noteworthy, but this may be a deliberate strategy; rather than allow “superstars” to indulge their technique, there may be an agreed compact to dissolve one’s identity in the shifting nebulae of clustered sounds. This collective approach means the band are unlikely to be nominated for the “Best Espousal of Ayn Rand Philosophy” prize at the next Mercury Awards. This year-old item is probably the last piece of “tangible product” we’ll get from the Insubordinations netlabel, since they’ve taken a completely digital path since then. The last physical object I got from them was an empty screenprinted package. From 5th February 2013.

Music for painting

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Florian Wittenburg
sympathetic, (a)symmetric – new music for piano
GERMANY SELF RELEASED NO NUMBER CD (2012)

A clutch of pieces for piano, some incorporating e-bow, with a very fluid dynamic – all killer, no filler – which held my full attention over the course of the entire disc over several listens. The pianists on these recordings are Daan Vandewalle, Nico Huijbregts and Florian Wittenburg himself. I initially took to listening to this disc while painting the spare room and was thus able to hear it in a uniquely concentrated way. Repetitive manual labour enables the mind to flow freely, I always find.

From an appropriate standpoint, all the pieces are very striking, powerful, involving and transporting. They may have roots in pieces for piano by Purcell rather than Schoenberg or Satie, but Wittenburg states a more modern interest in Morton Feldman and his term “crippled symmetry”. I must say I enjoy listening to this disc very much. The e-bow improvisations by Nico Huijbregts work particularly well within the disc’s running order to insert a little sense of air and space – in fact I hope this is how any pianists who may intend to use Wittenburg’s piano pieces in their repertoire utilize these – and are sufficiently short of duration to have the maximum effect. Now that I look more carefully at the sleeve notes, it seems that Wittenburg has credited Nico Huijbregts with the improvisations Three Drones I, II and III (2008). However in the (unusually substantial) press release Wittenburg states he “…started with 3 ebow drones for piano…The drones inspired me to create melodies on top of them…the idea of enriching the melodies through improvisation came to me.”

Wittenburg apparently then asked pianist Huijbregts to take the drones as a starting point from which to diverge and later return to. This is an approach not unusual in contemporary music; some members of the Wandelweiser group of composers, for example, live for this sort of thing. I had imagined integrated graphic notation within the score for these pieces, but Wittenburg puts it somewhat cryptically – “…being still involved with a visual approach to music at that time, I constructed the drones out of what I called ‘symmetric’ and ‘asymmetric’ intervals.” Wittenburg admits an interest in Morton Feldman’s term “crippled symmetry” – and/or Feldman’s actual composition Crippled Symmetry (1983) – but to listen to Three Drones I, II and III (2008), Huijbregts seems to be allowed free rein. It’s certainly a curious device when placed next to the other compositions. But anyway; the result is a set of pretty melodies augmented by the sympathetic long tones generated by the e-bows, which serve to break up the (fairly dense in contrast) bulk of Patterns In A Chromatic Field I-IV (2008-2009) and the pieces performed by Daan Vandewalle; Sol Meets John I and II and Chords In Slow Motion. Huijbregts does some respectful and delicate improvisation around Wittenburg’s melodies as expected and all is right with the world. Three Drones II is perhaps more sombre than I, and III arguably more contemplative.

So far, so academic? I was pleasantly surprised to have a strong emotional response to Chords In Slow Motion (2000) on first and subsequent listens. Wittenburg presents this piece – via his extensive texts in the press release – as a rigorous and complex system of elaboration whose gestation involved several stages of embellishment both additive and subtractive, leading me ultimately to expect to hear a dry, airless and overly scholarly composition. Quite the reverse is true, and I would recommend this very successful early piece and credit too the performer on this recording; Daan Vandewalle, for his reading of the score; as Wittenburg asserts: “…the notation is “free”, leaving space for interpretation by a performer, which affects especially the timing of the notes…” Just what I need to speed along my next DIY task.

Drift Away

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Marihiko Hara
Flora
DRONE SWEET DRONE RECORDS DSD011 CD / NIGHT CRUISING NCD-02_2013 CD (2013)

Marihiko Hara’s Flora is a collection of calming and ambient sounds that evoke images of his native Japan. Inspired by nature, this is music to relax to and be carried away by.

Far from being bold or provocative, Flora sits very much at the other end of the musical spectrum; providing a reflective and transporting experience that forces you to stop for a while and step away from the stresses and frustrations of everyday life.

Recorded in Kyoto and Takashima City, Hara’s elegant piano and electronic compositions are combined with field recordings to produce a seamless selection of tracks that aim to transport listeners through forests, lakes and oceans, and even all the way up to the moon.

More than anything else, Flora highlights Hara’s talents as a composer and musician; with tracks like ‘Camera’ and ‘Curtain’, in particular, demonstrating his abilities as a classical-style pianist. Occasional electronic touches add a bit of an edge, but the overall feeling remains that of serenity and placidity; like a rippling lake or gentle summer breeze.

The ambient sounds, including twittering birds and buzzing insects, simply provide a subtle background to the Kyoto-based artist’s compositions. In fact, the whole CD almost feels like a soundtrack to nature. Only on one track, ‘Ocean’, does the drone take over from the piano; providing a slight shift in mood and ambience.

On some level, Flora might have benefited from the inclusion of more ambient field recordings (especially on the water-themed tracks), but as Hara himself states, the sounds he has chosen are ones that are close to his heart; and this certainly comes across.

For sheer beauty, ‘Ocean’ and ‘Eclipse’ are probably the standout tracks, but there’s no weak link here, as they all glide effortlessly into one another; each distinct, but no one track overpowering or diminishing the next.

Overall, Flora is an unchallenging, gentle and tranquil experience that allows the listener the chance to experience nature, reinterpreted and enhanced. It is a piece of work very much rooted in Japanese culture and conjures up images of the country’s landscape away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

As such, the best way to appreciate Flora is to lie down, close your eyes and let yourself drift off into Marihiko Hara’s world. Once there, you might find you want to hang around for a while.

Creamed Coconut

Bossetti and Chris Abraham024

So, with CD player newly repaired and listening once more free from the shadow of equipment failure let us see if this newly de-stressed set-up has had a benevolent effect on my reviews:

Let’s consider Alessandro Bosetti and Chris Abrahams matt varnished digifile opus We Who Had Left (MIKROTON RECORDINGS CD 19).

Instrumentally it’s all about piano and electronics, approached with an appealing sensuousness which touches on such worlds as jazz and sound poetry. Chris plays piano in The Necks, I gather. I haven’t actually heard The Necks, but the internet told me that and I thought I’d save you opening any extra tabs by passing on the information.

The first track, ‘We also dress today’, doesn’t give too much away, a spare but approachable construct consisting of the piano riffing on one note, loose-connection bass pulse coyly flirting with being a kick-drum and a sprinkling of pattering, looped polyrhythm. The second track, ‘We arrange our home’, is more representative of what the duo have to offer: light, silvery runs up and down the keyboard backed with electronics, in this case an electronic wandering bassline shadows the piano while breathy samples which sound to me like down-tuned whistles are mixed into a gauzy background wash, giving a hovering flute-like exotica tinge. In this Exotic Forest you half expect some Martin Denny birdcalls to start up as you pass the next tree. It’s a coolly strange environment, like Ballard’s crystal jungle relocated to Tahiti and populated with silent Gauguin beauties.

‘We cannot Imagine’ introduces vocals, softly spoken and Italian-accented, slowly repeated and unpicked phrases unravel over the course of ten minutes whilst they are tentatively wafted into song by gentle puffs of piano and the quiet electric whistle-flutes, floating softly around the listening space. Quite a lovely effect, very delicately performed. Bellisimo.

Sound-wise this isn’t quite the Doobie Brothers, but there is a certain smoothness, more evident in some tracks than others, a quietly polished finish you might actually expect of an ambient album. However, when Chris Abrahams strikes or rather caresses a chord or note, ably counterpointed by Alessandro Bossetti, it is mighty enjoyable whatever burnishing methods may or may not have been applied.

‘When they are overhead’ starts a little like Charlemagne Palestine writ medium accompanying a clog-dance and Google party thrown by Santa’s elves. It certainly has the potential to achieve elevation and hits a nicely rolling green-ness towards the end. If you’ve ever seen the BBC Krautrock documentary where Iggy Pop drills a coconut (a fine cultural moment) while describing the music of Neu! you will recall he uses the phrase ‘psychedelic pastoralism’ while sunset silhouetted pylons recede field by field as seen through a car window. My pleasantly wandering mind was reminded as this track progressed of a similar sensation to that evoked by this scene.

Our journey finishes with a cover of a Bill Evans tune, Waltz for Debby. Debby is ceremoniously draped in a belligerent sinusoidal lap-top as our romantic Italian croons and serenades the album away over a seductive tinkle of the old ivories. That’s amoré!

011

Kakawaka
Ein Fröhliches Lied Auf Den Lippen Den Wandersmann Kann Nichts Erschüttern
NO LABEL MC CASSETTE

What have we here? A short but sweet cassette (the mini hi-fi system which includes the aforementioned CD player also has a tape player, conveniently), two 10 minute-ish sides. Seit ein: blind munching of psychotropic worms, bursts of computer overload, pitch shift metallic glissandi, the frog chorus and Michael Caine’s heel hitting the concrete in a deserted East Berlin basement, unt so on. Crude methods yield deceptively crude results. Vignettes change like clicking the button on one of those red slide-viewers with the slides on a carboard disc that you used to get. In the background those worms are munching in the dark, converting rainforest decay into putrid phosphorescence. A lesson we can all surely look to apply in our daily lives.

The insect life returns in the second of our sides wherein a flea-bitten, moth-ridden, valve-driven, ragged organ vamp is nibbled on the toes by beetles. Uneasy reposes occur, always while the mandibular chatter soothes away those aches of the day. A muffled noise like a plucked double bass loops away somewhere under the floor like Poe’s tell-tale heart thumping in a bath of mellow vibes. The beetles (John, Paul, Ringo and Jaws) organise a hunt, paint their concave carapaces carmine and set out in slow motion across a shifting carpet, their horns echoing lugubriously. Enchanting and finger-snapping, needless to say.

All in all, very relaxing and swinging and suitable for your next cocktail evening or canasta party if James Last Non Stop Dancing fails to deliver the goods.

A Vinyl Varambolage

Another fine Jean-Noël Cognard project – ever since this veteran French drummer got in touch with TSP, he’s been exceptionally generous in supplying us with his vinyl releases, which happen to be on the Bloc Thyristors label and are usually sumptuous objects pressed in coloured vinyl with screenprinted covers, witness their other releases by Tankj, Empan, Tribraque, Ressuage and others. La Vierge De Nuremberg is a six-piece combo featuring the great Jac Berrocal on trumpet, flute and various “jouets sonores”, Cognard on the drums, plus a jazz-rock-type combo on guitars, bass, sax and “clavier vintage”, by which I suppose the French understand old analogue keyboards. They play a solid and energetic set on Le Retour De (BLOC THYRISTORS 0100), reminding us of a forgotten time when albums really were “albums”, by which I mean a collection of related and well-produced tracks edited into a coherent whole, and not simply two 20-minute sprawls of improvised noise plastered onto vinyl. The band here exhibit diverse interests in jazz, free-form improvisation, progressive rock, psychedelic rock songs, and a fair dose of inventive insanity when the occasion calls for it. Fans who are in the know will appreciate the first track on side two, ‘Rock N Roll Station’, where Berrocal stages a remake-revisit of one of his most famous pieces (the original was recorded in 1976 with Vince Taylor on vocals, but I find Berrocal has revisited it at least twice before in 1996 and 2007), and it’s still an eccentric gem, although its avant-mischief is largely untypical of the rest of this album which is more in the area occupied by great French prog music of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Gong or Lard Free, with perhaps the odd touch of Rock In Opposition groups. Recorded in 2011 in the Pierre Schaeffer studio. Mika Pusse did the highly kinky cover artwork with lashings of spanking, lingerie and tit clamps. From July 2012.

The Swifter is a collaboration between the Italian percussionist Andrea Belfi and BJNilsen, plus the pianist Simon James Phillips. Just four enigmatic instrumentals on this eponymous long-player (THE WORMHOLE WHO#02), where the pattern is that each piece starts with uncertain, near-chaos, coagulating gradually out of forlorn percussive scrapes and bangs, as if a house were being put together by renegade builders invading your garden at midnight; and then develops slowly into a glorious melodic crescendo as Phillips executes his assured minimalist arpeggios to soaring effect. What begins as slightly broken music transforms itself into a very stable and pleasing harmonic arrangement. The odd effect of hearing so many drum-rolls and piano introductions that don’t develop anywhere is that the listener is kept in a state of constant anticipation, as though watching a music hall stage where the orchestra are creating the world’s longest build-up for a star singer who never appears. An enigmatic release – the titles refer to capstan bars, wave guidance and neap tides for no apparent reason, and the record purports to be about “space”, but I enjoyed the very crisp and clear sound of the recording, a no-nonsense and unfiltered document of the performances. From 18 October 2012, apparently the second vinyl release from this subsidiary of the cassette-only Tapeworm label.

Guerilla Toss are an American five-piece here with their Jeffrey Johnson (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR 095) LP, just six tracks which make for a shortish LP or a longish mini-album. The band form a basic oddball rock setup with guitars, bass and drums, but much sizzling heat is added by their two secret weapons – the synth of Ian Kovacjr and the vocals of Kassie Carlson. Kassie’s vocals are shrill, high-pitched and harsh and most civilians will reach for their steel helmets after just five minutes in her company, but when she’s in the shrieky mode she reaches new heights of deliberate-obnoxiousness not heard since Japan’s Space Streakings. Mark you, she is also capable of muttering strangely into the mike like she’s just been woken out of a coma in the psycho ward, and is recounting the dreams she just had. Kovacjr’s insane electronics add tasty flavouring too, although I for one would have liked to hear more from his moth-like fingers skittering across the keys and dials. The rest of the band are great though, straining quite hard (perhaps too hard) to play crazy dynamics, with wild stop-starts and frantic explosions of errant rock noise provided as needed. They fit together as a unit like sixteen pairs of odd socks – you never get the same match twice. Their strenuous efforts ensure the music is always extremely surprising (to say the least), even at the expense of structure or song form. Clearly all of these young Bostonians have been digesting their post-punk record collection well. I dig the spontaneous energy of the whole album while it’s spinning, even if it doesn’t leave much of an impression after the fizz has died down. Since we received this item, they’ve got a CD out on Tzadik, so maybe that one’s slightly better “produced”. Jeffrey Johnson gave the album its name and also did the bonkers cover art. (23 November 2012).

Thurston Moore is one of the “executive directors” of Feeding Tube Records and it so happens he’s featured on the album Caught On Tape (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR092 / MANHAND MH131), two sides of recordings taken from a European tour he did in 2012 with the drummer John Moloney covering his back. It’s a tremendous record. As is well known, 2012 was the year that Sonic Youth went on “hiatus”, and not even the press release makes any reference to this seminal band (although there’s a long checklist of Thurston’s other projects). Here, liberated from the song form and the need to hit marks, play on cue, imitate Glenn Branca compositions or do anything other than just play the guitar as he sees fit, Thurston is suddenly unleashed, born again. A meticulous musicologist could probably listen to side one alone and unpick musical quotes referring to anyone from John Fahey to Albert Ayler by way of Tom Verlaine, but everyone else is just enjoying the glorious melodic and psychedelic noise of unfettered amplified axe. Moloney’s drumming finally makes sense to me in this context too. I was usually disappointed by the sluggish Sunburned Hand of the Man records, but here Moloney’s loud and primitive bashes completely fit the bill, and the pair of them genuinely sound like they’re enjoying themselves. How often do we get that sensation these days? Recorded on cassette (like audience recordings) with a rough edge that aids the rawness of the music, the finished product has I suspect been edited in places – one or two splices are detectable on side one at least – but the cumulative effect is a non-stop exhilarating juggernaut of avant-rock madness. Fine art by Raymond Pettibon and Emma Kohlmann completes the package. Since the original “tour pressing” of 113 copies sold out instantly, this edition is a must-have! (23 November 2012)