Tagged: scientific


Miniature Candies

The Replace (EDITION DEGEM DEGEM CD10) compilation was put together by Marc Behrens for a Berlin label. He poses pointed questions about the many ways in which modern electro-acoustic music seemed to promise artistic utopias in the 20th century, and whether this notion still has any currency today. 14 modern electronica artistes (see image for full list of names) contribute to the debate in both musical and annotated form, covering topics such as philosophy, landscape painting, YouTube, spirituality, colour and geometric forms, and a chess-playing machine. Ambitious in scope, but so much of the music feels drab, unfinished, and half-baked.

A similarly difficult conundrum about modern life is posed by the ever-active Francisco López on his Untitled #284 (CRÓNICA 066-2012). He asks questions about reality, virtual reality, and the disappearance of real things, wondering about what it is we might actually be perceiving, as we flit about from coffee shop to shopping mall. Is it the real thing that is missing, or are we just feeding off our memories of reality? Armed with these Cartesian sentiments, and to further this poignant discussion, he reprocesses some field recordings he made in Lisbon in 1992. The accoutrements and blandishments of the modern urban world – if that is indeed what we are hearing – have rarely sounded so threatening, chaotic and alien. Looks like López peeled back the mask which cloaks reality, and didn’t like what he found.

Assured and entertaining retro-rock from Vibravoid on their Gravity Zero (SULATRON RECORDS ST 1201) album. If only they’d been operating in the UK around 1988-1989, then Spacemen 3, Bevis Frond and Sundial would not have enjoyed quite the same monopoly on lush psych-influenced muscular underground rock music. This album benefits from the rich additions of mellotron, Theremin and other far-out instruments to the punchy mix, but these Europeans also know how to compose a decent chord-filled song and stick to it. Their update on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The White Ship’, one of my personal faves among bad-acid dirges from the late 1960s, is one of many highlights.

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay is one of many Canadian electro-acoustic composers showcased on the empreintes DIGITales label who enjoys having their work presented as a 5.1 surround sound experience in stereo, pressed on a DVD for improved audio quality. Quelque reflets (IMED 11109) contains a number of his meditative and philosophical musings in sound form, of which I most enjoyed the tripartite opening number ‘Reflets de notre société crépusculaire’, with its title highly suggestive of an unpublished Edward Gorey book. Tremblay endeavours here to express his feelings of powerlessness in today’s world. Similar ethical dilemmas are expressed on the other works.

FilFla‘s Flip Tap (SOMEONE GOOD RMSG013) is a collection of short and concise instrumental pop tunes put together by the Japanese composer Keiichi Sugimoto, and an instalment in the ’10 Songs in 20 Minutes’ series, this label’s plan to celebrate the joys of avant-pop music. Sugimoto evidently has the skill of compression and his deftness in creating these upbeat and jolly episodes with their near-perfect production sheen is considerable. If only there were some actual melodies one could sink one’s teeth into. Seconds of high-pitched and extremely pleasant electronic miniaturised candy shapes fly by, but without much apparent song-form structure to underpin them. I’d imagine this is like watching a day’s worth of Japanese TV commercials in the space of half an hour.

I’m not a serious soundtrack music collector, but I gather there has grown up a rich subculture where individual composers of library music for KPM, De Wolfe, Chappell and others are being identified and celebrated after the fact, elevated from their formerly rather anonymous positions, while original pressings of the records are eagerly collected by covetous fans and DJs. Perhaps a similar mindset informs Sid Chip Sounds: The Music of the Commodore 64 (ROBOT ELEPHANT RECORDS RER013), an extremely unusual compilation which gathers examples of music for computer games designed for the Commodore 64 home computer system, first launched in 1982. Bob Yannes is named as the pioneering maestro who made this possible through his development of the SID Chip, and a number of composers – among them Martin Galway, Matt Gray, Ben Daglish, David Whittaker and others – are all showcased with examples of their musical endeavours. The games, including Last Ninja, Gauntlet 3 and Comic Bakery, are likewise namechecked. Musically, the album may feel a bit undernourished and the annoying limitations of the squelchy electronic sound may start to grate on some ears after only 10 minutes of play, but there is much interest to be derived from the inventive ways in which the musicians learned to overcome those limitations, to produce bouncy and entertaining music. That said, I think to call them “revolutionary composers”, as per the press release, is a massive overstatement. This release plugs into a whole retro subculture of young DJs who grew up with this material as part of their personal soundtrack, and are now restating it through assorted lo-fi subgenres such as 8-bit, chiptune, and gabba. Issued as a CD and double LP; only the packaging is a massive disappointment, and I’m not sure why it couldn’t have featured some colourful screengrabs from the games (licensing problems perhaps).

Florian Hecker compiled the double 10-inch LP set with the elaborate title 2/8 Bregman 4/8 Deutsch 7/8 Hecker 1/8 Höller (PRESTO!? P!?018), and the fractions involved in that naming scheme are to do with the amount of input from each contributor. It would be interesting to apply that degree of calibration to the thorny problem of composers’ rights, so maybe Hecker should consider contracting his skills to the international rights societies for music. Forty minutes of music are thus spread across four sides to be played at 45 RPM. The first two sections seemed to be nothing more than just minimal and extremely irritating digital sequences played randomly at high speed; anonymous ringtone music. But the third and fourth segments are slightly more engaging with their looped repetitions of a short vocal sound, which could be a micro-second sampled from the voice of a female announcer and reduced to a single syllable. Doubtless, if we listened to them for long enough we would experience the aural hallucinations which Disinformation has termed “Rorschach Audio”. These represent updates on the classic Steve Reich tape loops of voice segments, although our man Hecker evinces no interest whatsoever in the human emotions, politics or spirituality evidenced on ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and ‘Come Out’. Instead, the entire work is trying to make a marginal point about sensory perception and the psychology of hearing. Accordingly the press release comes with a reading list of academic books and papers on the subject, to assist us in our investigations. I recall feeling equally unengaged and alienated by Hecker’s Speculative Solution from 2011, and sadly this one isn’t doing much to reconcile me with the current scientific directions of his work.

All the above arrived at TSP headquarters in February and April 2012.


A Blanket In My Muesli

Here’s some unusual acoustic experimental music made by the German foursome of Quadrat:sch, deliberately emulating the traditional instrumentation of 18th century Alpine chamber folk with their set-up on Stubenmusic (COL LEGNO WWE 2CD 20305). Using hammered dulcimer, zither, guitar and double bass, the quartet turn in 12 short-to-medium pieces on the first CD of this double-disc set, all of them composed by the zither player Christof Dienz, and they are lively, taut renditions of pieces which follow song-like structures with their winning and bright melodies, complex time signatures, and brilliant inventive interplay of instruments. These tunes probably aren’t directly inspired by folk tunes as such, but some of them refer to dances, and the title of the opening track ‘This Way or That Way or the Other’ feels like a simple homespun philosophy that could easily apply to the gentler life of 200 years ago as much as it does to the strategies of a post-modernist musician. Apart from a couple of slow “pastoral” pieces, the mood of this disc is upbeat and cheerful, and you’ll soon be ordering a pair of britches and leather buskins so that you can join in this merry dance on the slopes of the Finsteraarhorn. On the second disc, the set-up is “extended” by the arrival of the great Zeena Parkins with her harp under one arm and a bushel of alpine fruits under the other. The percussionist Herbert Pirker also joins the team, and the six players use plucks, drones, groans, swoops, zangles and many other pleasing effects in very abstracted ways. These open-ended semi-atonal and non-rhythmic instrumentals (which are also composed rather than improvised) are intended to explore sonic structures, and while the set may not be a direct “answer record” to its more danceable brother, it is very indicative of the way that short, compressed compositions can be “opened out” into these labyrinthine buildings, full of twisting corridors and pathways. Oswald Egger supplies an interpretative text to this fine package of interesting music.

The Man with X-Ray Ears

The lovely Felix Kubin has released TXRF (IT’S ITS008) as a double LP, albeit not an excessively long one – some sides are just 11 minutes in length. It’s a fine set of irresistible and enjoyable electronic music made with such tools as the Sherman 2 filterbank and the Electrix Repeater, which is a loop sampler device – in short, a combination of analogue and digital devices to create patterns and processed sounds. As ever, Kubin manages to draw convincing lines of convergence between Kraftwerk, techno club music, and the more extreme modes of academic experimental electronic music of the 1960s, compacting his ingenious thniking in short and portable statements that remain somewhat enigmatic yet also very accessible. He also retains his very droll sense of humour, and I sense an undercurrent of hilarity which informs even the most austere of these cuts, which Kubin performs completely deadpan. According to the press release, of which I don’t have a physical copy, there’s also a scientific dimension to the set, involving the action of firing X-Rays at solid matter in order to determine something about their surface properties. This feels like a throwback to a certain time in the 1990s when Disinformation, John Duncan and others were exploring ways to make electronic music using scientific devices like particle colliders and shortwave signals. We’re not told exactly how Kubin managed to process X-rays into sound, and the plausibility factor is pretty low to say the least, but through the power of suggestion (a strategy also picked up by the cover image) it does pre-determine how we as listeners will approach the music to some degree. As a double LP, it’s structured in four connected sections titled ‘Total’, ‘Reflection’, ‘X-Ray’ and ‘Fluorescence’, suggestive of a process that might lead the listener through an experiment to its successful conclusion. In case any of this makes Kubin’s work sound pretentious, let me reassure you it’s quite the opposite; when you listen you’ll be won over instantly by the clarity of his thinking and the straightforward way he presents his ideas.

We Imply, He Infers

Another German composer is the excellent Marcus Schmickler, usually known for his extreme electronic music pieces. Rule Of Inference (A-MUSIK A-37) however showcases his compositional skills, with three substantial suites scored for percussion, orchestra, and chamber ensemble. The title piece is in four movements and allows the Cologne Schlagquartett to exercise their upper body muscles producing the strident, explosive portions of the first section, and the more approachable gamelan-like passages of the second part; we also hear bone-like rattling effects, brooding rumbles like thunder, and even some quasi-African polyrhythmic passages. Apparently all this percussion music was derived from complex ideas about logic, mathematics, and astronomy, and we’re advised to look for parallels in the music of Xenakis, Grisey and Stockhausen. It’s enough to restore your faith in systems-based music when it achieves such powerful results.

Quite different to the above is the 10-minute ‘Symposion’, an orchestral work which presents an eerie series of very mixed chords to create an effect like a slow-moving Ligeti or Penderecki piece. Though no stranger to micro-tonal compositional ideas, Schmickler here is in fact exploring something about the history of equal temperament, about which I know less than zero other than it’s a tuning system. ‘Symposion’ contains enough dissonances to curdle your internal organs, yet unlike Ligeti or Penderecki’s music it refuses any sort of narrative, religious, or philosophical associations and remains largely an exploratory, “process” experiment.

The album finishes with four short chamber-instrumentals which are intended as direct tributes to Carlo Gesualdo, the madrigal composer whose colourful life was about as bizarre as the music he composed; it seems Gesualdo broke all the rules in this very rarefied medium, but being the murderous nobleman he was, he could afford to do so and the audience for madrigal music was in any case incredibly limited (I like to think the Renaissance was a simpler more innocent time before globalisation, lucrative TV deals and instant internet coverage was the order of the day). One of the rules he broke was using far too many chromatic effects per square inch. Chromatics is another musicological term which I don’t really understand, but I’ve heard not a few records by Gesualdo and his scores make singers jump through hoops to produce musical clashes and dissonances that can jar the fillings loose from your teeth. Schmickler’s approach has been to eliminate the vocal elements completely and attempt, through his arrangements, to compress all those delicious chromatics into handy bite-size pieces. I’m no expert as I hope I’ve made clear, but I feel Schmickler has somehow missed the exquisite jarring factor that is to me the essence of Gesualdo. Even so, these four succeed nicely as modernist takes on Renaissance music. If this CD appeals, may I recommend you rewind to 2006 and hear a copy of Demos by this composer, also released by A-Musik, for a fascinating mix of orchestra, choir and electronic music.

Towards Solitude

From April 2011, a recent piece of Hari Hardman Produkt is a cassette tape wrapped in a band of emery paper. Yooch. Not one for sensitive fingertips, and a nod to a nihilistic cultural strategy used knowingly for an LP by Durutti Column (LP wrapped in sandpaper) whose designers copied it from a Situationist art book by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn. Aim was to produce a book which would physically attack any other books shelved either side of it, gradually eroding them away. Live At Pino Mare (H023) is just two pieces of brutal minimalist monotony-noise in ten minutes. It will gradually erode away the listener. Hardman declares the music was “realised through Autnagogic Auditory Hallucinations”, thereby invoking everything from a La Monte Young dream-music to lucid dreaming techniques by way of sleep-learning, self-hypnosis, and psychedelic drugs. In all probability, such a strategy does not actually exist. I do not recommend you play this tape before nodding off last thing at night, nor to keep it under your pillow, as it may provoke sick nightmares. On the other hand it may also transmit a stream of valuable data and implant it directly into your cerebellum. The real Pino Mare is a popular seaside resort in Italy. I very much doubt if the music was actually recorded live at that endroit, as they don’t actually have a Butlins or equivalent venue, but perhaps Hari Hardman is capable of out-of-body experiences when inducing his own hallucinations.

An impressive belt of ascetic and crystal clear music with deep spiritual overtones is Aestuarium (SOMA 002), an LP released in June 2011 on Stephen O’Malley’s SOMA label via Editions Mego. The singer Jessika Kenney and violinist Eywind Kang both contributed parts and ideas to Sunn O)))’s recent Monoliths and Dimensions album, and so impressed was O’Malley that he arranged for a reissue of this 2005 collaboration which had previously been available as a CDR from Endless Records. Using just voice and viola, the duo deliver themselves of five minimalist meditational psalms, invoking “Gaelic psalmery and Tibetan notational gestures”; this may be seen as an attempt to find common ground between western and eastern religions, but also results in a very limited melodic scale, just one of the many rigourous hardships self-imposed by the duo as they produce these slow and achey lamentations that are intended to find consonances between salt water and fresh water. Not content with that, Renaissance science is also brought into the mix with a reproduction of Giordano Bruno’s Speculum Magorum on the front cover, and a further musical aspect with the “microtonality of the tetrachord”. Some of these notions border on the pretentious for me, but I can forgive everything when faced with music of such breathtaking clarity, simplicity and beauty. The discipline of the work is key; not a single wrong note has ended up on the record, and every vocal strain and bowed note shines forth with the weight and import of the utterance of a hermetic mystic or ascetic monk who has been subsisting on a diet of mouldy roots for 18 years. This project has also been highly instructive for the musically omnivorous O’Malley, who has now found a way into the “spectral” music of composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail as part of his ongoing musical research.

Lucia Mense is an academically trained recorder player who is at home performing Medieval, Baroque and Renaissance music, but for Electronic Counterpoint (SATELITA 004) we find her collaborating very successfully with contemporary composers and performing with her acoustic instruments alongside live electronics and computer treatments. The Canadian Mark Sabat wrote a six-part work in celebration of flowering vegetables, and the results are six sprightly dance pieces with a pagan undertone that wouldn’t have been out of place in an alternative version of the Carmina Burana. Manfred Stahnke is more up to date with his ‘Impansion Expansion’ piece, which requires computer-processing of Lucia’s bass and tenor recorders; this rather sad and distant work may appear to be a simple exercise in tuning systems and arrangement of tones, but it showcases the acoustic qualities of the recorder beautifully, adding emphasis through judicious use of digital echo and multiple layers of recording. Computers and pre-records are also used on Sascha Lino Lemke‘s composition, which is asking pointed questions about contemporary life and the preservation of personal digital content; the music is somewhat disjunctive and Mense is required to make her alto recorder squeak and fidget like a high-octane mouse. Any more of this breathy improvisational work and she’ll be invited to join Phosphor any day. Next comes the astonishing ‘Black Smoker’ composed by Ulrich Krieger, for me the most deeply affecting and successful piece on the release. California-based Krieger is, like O’Malley above, another musical omnivore who composes, improvises, plays chamber music and electronic music, and draws no boundaries between free noise, heavy metal and ambient music. His own career and experience in working the saxophone may have enabled him to compose music which is undoubtedly very sympathetic to the qualities of Mense’s sub-bass recorder. The ubiquitous MAX/MSP software was used to process the sound on this hymn to hydrothermal vents, fissures in the earth’s surface which exist on the ocean floor (I’m not making this up), and it’s a sumptuous long episode of slow-moving microtonal droning that must have required every last drop of Mense’s superhuman technical resource to realise. Put another way, she must have iron claws which grip the recorder like a mechanical derrick. And if you think playing a sub-bass recorder is a cinch, just try Googling for a picture of one; some of them are about ten feet tall and I doubt if I could even pick one up, let alone hold it in place. As to that, it might have been nice to provide some pictures of the instruments and performer in the booklet here, but the cover artworks by Frau W are suitably abstract and intriguing.

Speculative Solution (EDITIONS MEGO 118 / URBANOMIC UF13) contains some works of electronic music by Florian Hecker, but that’s just one part of the package of this boxed set which also includes a 158-page booklet of texts, and five little ball-bearings. The music is apparently an expression of the concept of “hyperchaos” as set forth by the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, who also provides an essay in the booklet called ‘Metaphysics and Extro-Science Fiction’; the other contributors are Robin Mackay and Elie Ayache, and the text is printed in English and French. The expectation is that we play the electronic music very loud and that we read, re-read and even read aloud the texts in the booklets; at some point Hecker’s music, methodologies and experimental approaches will be seen to align themselves with the ideas of Meillassoux, Mackay and Ayache. No suggestion is made as to what we do with the ball-bearings, although as they roll around the bottom of the box they probably demonstrate something about anti-matter in space, or the behaviour of subatomic particles, or something. As a non-scientific person, I freely admit all of this is beyond my ken, and I haven’t made the slightest headway in attempting to penetrate the dense printed texts; anything that discusses “catalytic objects”, “prosthetics for spiritual exercises” and “the notion of ascesis” on the second page loses my attention instantly. However, the disjunctive music is very interesting and even rewarding on some level, providing you enjoy listening to tones that have been rendered clinical, hyper-precise and inhuman to the point of absurdity, and which project themselves out of the speakers with the same relentless and unexpected energy as if they were Quarks shot from a particle cannon. I realise the project is probably intended to be provocative in some way (Urbanomic also publish the writings of Ray Brassier, whose radical texts have been quite influential on Mattin’s current thinking), and I completely respect Hecker’s willingness to engage with cutting-edge scientific theory and his intellectual ability to do so, but Speculative Solution doesn’t seem to be working very hard to make the ideas more intelligible to idiots like me. When Disinformation (for example) flirted in the limbo between scientific ideas and ambient music, he was at least making the effort to explain things, ensuring that we understood some of the core concepts behind the functionality of sound mirrors or shortwave radio waves. Conversely, I find the texts in Speculative Solution are incomprehensible and alienating.