Brilliant Creatures

We first heard Alexander Sigman’s compositions on the formidable release Nominal / Noumenal, which appeared on Carrier Records in NYC in 2011. Evidently I was overwhelmed at the depth and complexity of this Californian composer’s work, but I still found much to enjoy. One of the characteristics of that release was Sigman’s propensity for using unexpected information sources as the basis for a musical score; in that case, “surrealist poetry, the typography of Eric Gill, the behaviour of biological neurons” were deployed as starting points, and once fed through the many-layers of his intelligent brain, wild music resulted: “the paths of musical information zig-zag and circuit in highly unexpected fashion.”

Today’s record fcremap (NEW FOCUS fcr194), likewise starts from the point of channelling external non-musical information into musical form. In this instance, it’s the work of a Korean artist/animator named Eunjung Hwang, who has made a series of cartoon films called Future Creatures; excerpts and examples of Hwang’s images are provided on every available space of cover art on this trifold digipak release, and inside the booklet. (And watch the DVD too). She has a deceptively simple drawing style (on the surface, some of his drawings have a style similar to a Peter Max or Heinz Edelmann drawing of the 1960s), but the subject matter appears to be highly unusual speculations about biological forms and mutations of the future. Sigman’s tactic has been to transform audio data and video data from Hwang’s films into graphic scores; these are then played by the Decibel New Music Ensemble, sometimes showcasing individual players like Frederik Croene and Erik Derr. Sigman explicitly calls this process “remapping”, hence the title; it involves a range of methods for transformation, such as “real time scrolling electronic graphic notation” and “image to sound analysis” of the visual data derived from the films. Further details – and there are plenty to digest – can be gleaned from reading the booklet of notes.

Even the titles of the six works are part of the overall plan. On the 2011 record I noted Sigman’s gift for compaction, compression of information into small spaces; in his titles, “the use of rounded and square brackets implies intertextuality and compressed meanings within meanings”. Much the same applies here; the main title fcremap unpacks into Future Creatures Remap, while individual compositions contain, effectively, the DNA code of their own making and instrumentation: for instance ‘fcrempno’ is the piano piece, ‘fclremap’ is the one scored for clarinet. Sigman delights in these tight packets of information; one might liken his compositional method to computer coding. I would like to add that Sigman’s remapping is nothing like the simplistic efforts that have been made in recent times by aspiring avant-garde electronic musicians, who merely recast the data found in large image or video files into an audio wrapper, and then “replay” it through their laptop software. I don’t regard that as composition, merely lazy process art, and it invariably results in unlistenable digital noise. On the contrary, Sigman’s work in producing these graphical notations has all the signs of hard work: it is well-crafted, intelligent, and carefully arranged; the remapping aspect is only part of the whole process, not the beginning and end of it.

Until you hear the music, that is…all the pieces here have an other-worldly, near-impossible form to them that is capable of expressing incredible beauty. It kind of helps to understand the method, and the structure, but the sheer aesthetic pleasure and the uncanny emotive sensations will sweep the listener away in short order. My two favourites, and perhaps the “heavyweights” of the session, are the two works scored for the entire Decibel New Music Ensemble, apparently two versions of the same score. Taken together, 20 minutes of eerie bliss; the music roams freely and puffs like a cloud, a cloud of mystery. It’s in several movements, episodes almost, elided together by edits. With the foreground flute work, it sometimes feels like conventional classical-pastoral music meeting up with modern electronics. Synths (I assume) provide pulsations / patterns / structure, while the flute soars wildly and freely, following its own kite-like pathways in the air. Utterly compelling.

The other pieces showcase the talents of individual musicians. The one for Laura Faoro’s flute and Takao Hyakutome’s violin is gorgeous, but also undercut with a sense of urgency; Zen Buddhism meets 21st-century urban anxiety. Gorgeous atmospherics in just five minutes. Further turbulence to be found in parts of the Frederick Croene piano piece; the piano may be prepared in some way, sounding plangent and enriched with extra scrape and percussion. Dissonant and busy compositoin, with thundery lower register chords. Sigman never misses a chance to layers of scratchy detail when the occasion calls for it. The clarinet of Pei-Lun Tsai sounds forlorn and lost, and is joined by an equally ambiguous synth plaint; five minutes of incredibly emotive music. Then there’s Eric Derr’s percussion kit, leading off the album, another very active and busy composition with no space left unrattled or percussed. Becomes quite Harry Partchian at the end; a rich and sonorous update on gamelan music.

A DVD is included in the package; this reveals (to some extent) how the music is realised, documenting live musicians playing as they watch a huge screen with the graphical score slowly scrolling from right to left before them. The images of Eunjung Hwang are visible, along with grids, numbers, and other data which I assume enables them to process this content into music in some way. Viewing this video in no way demystifies the music or compromises your listening enjoyment (to an ignoramus like me, it’s like magic). Dr Sigman kindly sent us a copy of this amazing release from Yamanashi Gakuin University in Kofu, Japan, where he holds the position of Associate Professor and Chair of Music. Highest recommendation for this completely unique and wonderful piece of modernist music; it satisfies on every possible level and will reward many future auditions. From 12th December 2017.