Saturday, March 17, 2018

Paul Khimasia Morgan - Peoplegrowold (Confront Collectors Series)

Morgan's listed on only "prepared acoustic guitar body & objects" on this short, lovely recording. One can only imagine the preparations and the nature of those objects as they seem to extend beyond the usual e-bows and contact mics. The thought of "guitar" might well not surface during a given listen. But that's somewhat beside the point as the four pieces on their own are delicate, intricate explorations, well-paced, sounds chosen with care and a fine ear.

One might say that the music meanders but in a modest, intelligent manner, seeking out small byways to investigate. On the first track, 'wtda', a guitar-string jangle morphs into a several-layered hum, very discreet, slowing deepening and splaying out, dissolving into a set of the hums alternating with what sounds like brief slices of same. There's a sense of the nocturnal, of noises in the dark, of ambling through a quiet but not entirely inactive town that percolates in a ghostly way while most are sleeping. Morgan provides just enough iteration of certain elements and occasional pulse to propel things along from sound to sound, barely enough to impart a sense of purpose, just the right amount. 'queensarc' opens with a tiny snatch of voice, perhaps from a radio, and is pricklier than it's predecessor, still offering hums but edgier, more quavery ones, offset with various pieces of static and crackling. There are short silences, like extended eye blinks, the gaze of the viewer shifting slightly each time. It's a more industrial area, tauter and more anxious. The title track starts in a crowded interior space for about a second then shifts to a buzzing drone gently reflecting glimmers of feedback. It wanders through that gritty haze, encountering the odd, muffled beat of a pop song here, traffic or a cough there; it's the most mysterious piece here, quite dreamy and effective. 'waterchimes' is perhaps the densest offering, with several layers and varieties of drone, sets of rustles and clicks and, yes, chime-like tones. As with all the music on this disc, it's less about the elements than how they're placed in context, how restrained is their usage and how surprising-yet-inevitable they appear. The gaze feels careful but distant, observing key aspects and allowing them to stand on their own.

A really fine recording, my favorite of what I've heard from Morgan thus far. Highly recommended.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Laura Steenberge - Harmonica Fables (Nueni)

It goes without saying that there's never enough harmonica in contemporary experimental music, so Steenberge's fine recording has a leg up from the get go. She attended Cal Arts and I'm guessing studied with Michael Pisaro (she appears on his recording, 'Tombstones') and perhaps James Tenney. Not that their influence is marked--it's not--but a vague glimmer of the kind of gentle individualism they teach is apparent on this very unique effort.

There are nine tracks, in three groupings. The first two, 'Ritual for Harmonica' and
'Chant - Harmonica', are the longest pieces at about 12 and 20 minutes respectively and, as their titles might indicate, are the ones with a ritualistic aura. On both, Steenberge hums/sings at the same time as she plays the harmonica, the latter often acting as a kind of drone or pedal point. 'Ritual for Harmonica' uses long tones, burled and complex in their layerings, the vibrato of the voice offset against the subtler vibrato of the harmonica chords. When pitched higher, she almost gets a Lucier-like effect of adjacent tone interference. But the overall cast is one of solitary reflection, thoughts unfurling in strings that are emitted in a quasi-regular manner but vary--intuitively, one feels--in any number of characteristics. (I pick up a glass-like sound as well, as though she's also blowing through, perhaps, a bottle). 'Chant - Harmonica', delves deeper, a series of rich, dark, undulating lines seemingly lasting as long as a breath, the low, buzzing harmonica chord bracing the simple "melody" atop, a sung line (anywhere from 3 to 15 notes) that indeed obliquely recalls the idea of "chant", though from what culture I'd find impossible to say. Her bio references a study if Byzantine chants, but I also find myself thinking along didjeridoo lines. The piece is extremely immersive as well as demanding, developing intensity and intricacy as it progresses--you really have to give yourself up and just wallow in it. Very beautiful.

The trio of pieces bearing the title, 'Sphere' (1, 2 & 3) are quite different, tending toward the high range of the instrument and involving swirling, airy patterns, sometimes reminding me of some of Guy Klucevsek's more abstract explorations (there's some accordion kinship here, I think). Mysterious and enticing, sparkles in an ice cloud. The final four compositions are more songlike in nature, though only vaguely so; maybe the titles nudge one in that direction. On 'The Lady of Shallot', the harmonica takes on a character that sometimes resembles a recorder before splaying out in shimmering, prismatic chords. Thinking of it, maybe it's the title of the following piece, 'Pan and Apollo' that got me thinking of pipes. Here, a rapid cycle of notes alternates between a medium-high, repeating swirl and a much higher, oddly distorting one, eventually overlapping and intermingling--oddly disorienting and quite effective. 'The King's Ears' has a bit of a fanfare quality as well as great sonic depth between both pitches and timbres. It shifts from the initial "announcement" aspect to a kind of chorale, a sung and sighed paean and, finally, to a kind of fast jig. 'Rip Van Winkle' closes thing out sleepily and dreamily, billows of gentle snores, in and out, in and out, yawning and stretching.

A wonderful and unusual recording.


Monday, March 05, 2018

Mazen Kerbaj/Andrew Lafkas/Mike Bullock - Funkhaus (Fine Noise & Light)

When Lafkas and Bullock get together, my ears immediately go into anticipative and very receptive mode and Kerbaj proves to be a welcome addition to the mix. The latter is listed for trumpet and objects; I don't know his work well enough to say what his approach to the horn tends to be but here, it seems to possess an oddly reedy sound (reed trumpet?) and blends in superbly with the two basses, enough that I'm often not sure which instrument is which--I could be totally wrong about the ascriptions, which is fine.

Lafkas and Bullock spend much time in the lower registers and probably more often arco than not, but their usual deep sensitivity and embrace of pure sonic richness is much in evidence. There's a lot of variation in the four improvisations; I mentally slot the music into a post-eai improv category--that is, free improv informed by but not necessarily subject to the reductionist ethos of times past. I hear references to Favors, Haden, McBee and others (perhaps just in my head), very loving incorporations of aspects of their sound into a different context and it works like a charm. Kerbaj weaves among these thickets, restrained with buzzes and taps, woodpecker-like at times, as in the third track. Very enjoyable, highly creative improv.

Sons of God - Table Talk (Fine Noise & Light)

To the best of my recollection, this is my first exposure to Sons of God (Leif Elggren and Kent Tankred) despite their having a discography that dates back to at least 1991. Here, they're joined by Mike Bullock (Modular synth and computer) in a live performance in Philadelphia from 2016. I gather that theatrics comprise a good portion of their presentation and the photos include a table with a small stack of newspapers that, going from the cover, played a significant role. That being said, I'm left with only the sounds which include, possibly, vocal reactions to the papers and the shuffling and tearing of same. These appear briefly, about midway through, and are embedded in the overall mass of humming electronics, augmented with obscure clicks and what might be sample of high-end arco bass playing. Watching some older videos of the pair, I take it for granted that there were theatrics going on here but, at the same time, the examples I've seen aren't up my alley anyway, so I may be just as well off. As is, the recording is an ok listen, though lacking the sense of involvement and communication of the above-reviewed one; apples and oranges, of course.

Fine Noise & Light

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Vanessa Rossetto - Fashion Tape (No Rent Records)

I just realized it's been ten years since Rossetto exploded into my musical awareness with the amazing trio of releases, 'Misafridal', 'Imperial Brick' and 'Whoreson in the Wilderness'--a highly enjoyable decade of rich, surprising music. I've missed a few of her most recent recordings, so I'm not sure how/if 'Fashion Tape' fits into the sequence or not, but it's yet another (to me) slightly unexpected direction, perhaps mostly in its usage of taped voice as a major element.

Rossetto has frequently used a combination of field recordings or other found sounds and music from either electronics or her own viola playing, the latter often imparting an unexpected and welcome melodic, even Romantic, element. In this collection of five pieces, a cassette release, the recordings tend to predominate, though I think the viola lurks just below the surface now and then. 'Sample Sale' begins disconcertingly with a mechanical, quasi-poppy sequence, a looped rhythm that's tinny and artificial-sounding, all the more so when a female voice (Rossetto's?) utters, "Welcome, please come in. This is a demo." in a detached, icy manner. We're then ushered into a public space, occasionally bristling with shards of electronics, filled with distorted voices, distant Muzak, complaining children and more. It's a space filled with sounds but somehow not dense; more ghosts than bodies. Swirling, metallic electronics scour the area clean of any human presence before the scene shifts and voices reappear, but hazier, more muffled, half-hidden beneath the sound of clinking, like a spoon in a metal glass. The choices are poetic, unsettling and hard to quantify but work marvelously. This longer track and the concluding one bracket three briefer pieces, three to four minutes in length. 'Memphis Milano' is the most disturbing one, a synth-y looping sequence bearing a vague similarity to buzzing insects, that maintains a mechanical regularity of rhythm while fluctuating in pitch, dynamics and number of lines but for all that, sounding like a reminiscence of some of the more aggravating examples of 1960s electronic music experiments. 'Fake Cheese' returns us to the environment explored in the first track (perhaps the intermediate cut was a kind of buffer or transition zone), the hubbub of the marketplace buried even more deeply under a thick, cottony thrum of electronics through the middle of the piece before emerging somewhat more clearly amidst harsher static etchings. A paranoid sounding man speaks of escape and culpability--again, disquieting and quite strong.

A different male's voice, sounding as though from Arkansas or thereabouts, begins 'Radiant Green', again seemingly troubled, going on about perceived manifestations of the titular color as well as white light, hiding from the truth and other defensive obfuscations. He wanders off, one imagines, and the sounds of the mall remain, serene and undisturbed, slowly gaining in volume and intensity before crackling apart. Rossetto's voice (I think) opens 'measurement', a track on which Matthew Revert also contributes, by repeating the title word in several layers. Once again, a man's voice enters (Revert's?) apparently doing some multiplication exercises. Beneath, there's the strongest possible evidence of Rossetto's viola or some other string source, very muted and quite poignant, like a fresh stream flowing under the mall's floors. The general sound-world morphs into something more "natural"; one hears birds, perhaps the chittering of other animals--it could just be a pet shop, though. The strings intensify and indecipherable voices are heard as the environs become more complicated, even hallucinatory. It's an amazing piece, every move both surprising and solid. Rossetto creates an eerie mini-world that one feels extends well beyond what she's happened to include in the recording, no mean feat.

'Fashion Tape' is a very fine addition to an already seriously impressive body of work. Give a listen.

No Rent Records

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Patrick Shiroishi - Ima (Confront Recordings)

Shiroishi's 2014 recording on Confront, 'White Sun Sutra' was pretty interesting, showing a range of approaches to his saxophones among other things. 'Ima' picks up from there and then some. 'Lunar Bloom', the first of two tracks, has as its main stem what sounds like a taped voice, deep and very distorted, writhing through the piece, augmented by percussive sounds that carry, for me, a ritual aspect of some sort, and Shiroishi's alto which here has a vocal feeling to it and which, in fact, changes to pure voice toward the piece's end. It's dark enough to seemingly make the adjective 'meditative' inappropriate, but that's the overriding sensation I derive. A strong work. 'To Bathe in the Dreams of Fireflies' opens in an area that belies its title, a fairly disturbing, roiling kind of rumble, like a large reptile whipping around in some subterranean pool. Gradually, wisps of alto and light percussion ('spoons' are listed on the instrumentation--this could be it), provide small glimmers of illumination. You're then thrown entirely off balance by taped orchestral and choral music that sounds Chinese in origin to these ears, like some group spirit that's suddenly coalesced in the gloom. There's a very cinematic cast to everything, sonic images emerging an disappearing from the throbbing and growling, the chorus and orchestra returning, the alto gaining some strength. The whole piece begins to accumulate mass and surge ahead, debris collecting on all sides, before finally expiring with a handful of wheezes. Very impressive and unique, recommended.

Patrick Shiroishi - Tulean Dispatch (Mondoj)

This cassette is quite different. Referencing the Tule Lake internment camp, where his grandparents were imprisoned, it contains a very personal set of pieces. "Herni" opens as a rapid-fire alto exercise in Parker-esque (Evan) cascades including some circular breathing but settles into a ballad-like sequence in the sax's lower range, not unlike some of Braxton's songlike solo pieces. Toward the end, I believe the horn is played into a piano--very nice (in fact, I think each track at least ends in this fashion, maybe more often than that). "The Screams of a Father's Tears" wells up in full-throated roars and harsh stutters, a raging juggernaut, very strong of its type. It simmers down only slightly before returning even more stridently than before. "Form and Void", on baritone, recalls in its first few minutes Roscoe Mitchell's "Eeltwo" a bit in character and deep mournfulness. The dirge-like melodic material is repeated over and over, gaining passion and pathos on each iteration. The note sequence grows quicker, looping and swirling. Shiroishi's tone is full, rich and fluid; it's a joy to hear him plumb these depths, even as the anguish threatens to swallow the listener whole. The brief, "The Flowers And Candles Are Here To Protect Us" closes the tape, a lovely ballad that almost touches on "You Go to My Head", heartfelt and intensely moving. As I said, quite different from "Ima" but every bit as strong and well worth hearing.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Eva-Maria Houben/Rebecca Lane/Samuel Dunscombe - observing objects (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - voice with piano (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - voice with harp (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eva-Maria Houben - breath for organ (Second Editions)

As much as I love it, I generally find it very difficult to write about Eva-Maria Houben's music. There's an apparent simplicity about it that's air-like; how to describe air currents? 

It's also not easy to keep up with her output. Discogs lists 46 releases and I imagine they're missing a few; I have 28 of these and still have a distinct feeling I'm getting a somewhat blurry reading on the real breadth of her work. I'll try to briefly limn the parameters of four recent recordings, knowing most of it will evade any even semi-reasonable description.

In fact, the first listed of the releases appears to be a joint project, possibly a collaborative composition by Houben, Rebecca Lane and Samuel Dunscombe playing, respectively, organ/piano, bass flute and bass clarinet. The piece, 'observing objects', is played twice, once with organ, once with piano. It consists of sets of long, overlapping notes (the bass instruments tending toward the low, the organ varying higher and lower pitches) interspersed with silences, though the latter are filled with the ambient sounds of the recording space. If there's a regular pattern with regard to the entrances and durations of the tones, I can't discern it. As with much of Houben's music (and, perhaps, with that of Lane and Dunscombe), one has the vivid impression of human breathing--not regular, in this case, but within the normal boundaries of inhalation and exhalation. The irregularity of the sequencing imparts an inference of sensual and/or intellectual preoccupation, as though the musicians' attention is gently moving from object to object, observing them and giving a commentary that has been reduced to a single tone. The lines are pure and beautiful in and of themselves and become more so, and gain stunning complexity, when they happen to overlay one another, like looking through translucent panels of colored glass that generate unexpected hues. Difficult to describe, very easy and satisfying to experience. Though the structure remains at least roughly the same for the second version (though the silences seem longer--one hears birds just outside) the initial sharpness of the piano attacks and their decay makes for a very different, no less invigorating experience. It's a stunning recording.

As is 'voice with piano', wherein a number of shorter pieces are sung by the extraordinary Irene Kurka, accompanied by Houben. The disc is in three sections: 'adagio' (three pieces), the standalone 'lyrik' and 'lieder für die insel (songs for the island)' (five pieces). Much of the music evokes, to my ears, early music though nothing I could put a finger on. Each of the trio of songs in 'adagio' begins with solo piano, stark and somber but glowing, before Kurka enters--also solo--singing the text by Felix Timmermans, poems dating from 1947, with clarity and strength. She sings, apparently, into the piano--one hears its strings resonating beautifully. A breathtaking set. Hilde Domin (1909-2006) provides the words for 'lyrik'. The music remains dark, Houben striking low, ominous single notes, Kurka singing above though seemingly weighted down by the deep tolling. I'm unfamiliar with Domin's poetry, but her escape from Nazi Germany (her husband's family was murdered there) seems to hang in the air. Houben herself contributes the text of the final set, five pieces lasting three to four minutes each. Keeping with the tenor of the album, the music remains sober; old stone walls, cold to the touch, come to mind. The piano notes are often held for quite a while, mixing with and eventually overtaken by the quietly bristling ambiance. As on 'adagio', the piano begins on its own but this time remains with the voice and after the singing is over. There's a near-symmetry in effect on each song, the piano acting as a kind of floating platform upon which the voice emerges for a few moments, then subsides. Kurka's 'chants' was one of my favorite releases last year; this is bound to be one of this year's top recordings. 

'adagio' and 'songs for the island' are included on 'voice and harp' as well, performed by Tatiana Kuzina (soprano) and Christine Kazarian (harp). It begins, however, with a piece titled 'aeolian harp', though the instrument in question is clearly being activated by something with far great plucking power than wind. Whatever the case, it's a lovely piece, almost in a "traditional harp" mode, with wafting arpeggios set off against occasional deep thrums, every so often tempered by "sourer" notes that add wonderful depth and a tinge of doubt. The three "adagio" songs follow. Perhaps it's partially the harp as opposed to the piano, but the tone is distinctly different--less dark, less earthy, more ethereal (I think Kuzina might be singing into the harp; I assume that's indicated in the score). "hatid", with text by Houben, is an extraordinary 8 1/2 minute work, once again staying in the same, softly somber territory as elsewhere here and on the album with Kurka, the voice alternating with harp, Kuzina's long, somewhat sad tones contrasting superbly with the delicate plucking. As on the second reading of 'observing objects' the piano a bit more vibrant than on the other works here, but Kuzina's slightly airier voice imparts the two songs with both a mistier and, perhaps, more melancholy feeling--equally as striking as the Houben/Kurka versions. As are the 'Songs for the Island' pieces--it's fascinating to hear the two readings. If I slightly prefer the piano it's likely just an inborn instrumental prejudice on my part. The music itself, more importantly, is so thoughtfully conceived, so clear, that I imagine it could be rendered on any number of instruments (and I'd love to hear it).

All three of these Wandelweiser releases are deep and moving. Moreover, they might serve as fine initiations for those previously unfamiliar with Houben's work.

'breath for organ' is very different from the above, especially the two releases with voice, but will be familiar enough to those listeners who have prior experience with Houben. She's done a great deal of music for organ and, to my mind, this is one of her very best. Houben played this on (and perhaps wrote it for?) the pipe organ of the St. Franziskus Church in Krefeld, Germany. It's also an example of how difficult it is to give any sort of description that does justice to the experience. The piece contains long sequences of sound that are more air/breath than notes in any traditional organ sense, although at times one hears those tones around the edges. Sometimes the sounds approach that made by train whistles; more often it's as though steam were being released through a vent that has a tiny amount of metallic resonance, imparting the barest hint of a tone. Occasionally, it sounds like two tones are played simultaneously, but I'm not sure. Importantly, this is all embedded in the ambience of the church itself--there are spaces between the tones, but never silence. I hear it as somewhat akin to 'observing objects' except that the sounds are less related to breathing and more individual episodes or glances emanating from the same being. I have the image of a large, semi-mobile pipe organ, anthropomorphized into a gigantic, slow-moving creature, using sound to sense its way around the church, inch by inch. It's bare yet rich, simple yet endlessly engrossing. An amazing recording. 

Edition Wandelweiser

Also available from Erst Dist

Second Editions

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Cyril Bondi - euhesma, 2017 (Edition Wandelweiser)

Issued under Bondi's name, he's joined by his Diatribes partner D'Incise on this composition, the former playing Indian harmonium, melodica, harmonica and pitch pipes, the latter Indian harmonium, electric organ and melodica. From the instrumentation alone, you get the idea that you're going to be experiencing, among other things, some rich drone-oriented music and yes, that's one aspect of 'euhesma, 2017'. Euhesma, incidentally, is a genus of bee and one wonders whether at least part of the piece is a meditation on that species' apparent decline in the world. On the back cover of the disc,"(apocrita 3)" is appended to the title, apocrita being a suborder of Hymenoptera that includes wasps, bees and ants. The interior of the CD package bears a difficult-to-define photographic image that seems to be an overhanging eave constructed from interlocking pieces of wood.

I suppose slowed down bee buzzing could be a reference as well and it's a tempting one especially as light clattering (presumably from the pedals of the harmoniums) that occur throughout but more audibly toward the work's conclusion summon up, at least to these ears, the hyper-amplified clicking of apian legs and antennae. Bur possible programmatic allusions aside, we have a wonderful series of overlapping drones from subtly different sources. Over the course of the work, there's a (very) gradual (and happily inconsistent) densification of tones, going from relatively sparse with spaces left between sounds to the last several minutes where there's almost a fanfare-like effect achieved. The tones are always transparent, though never gauzy--I'm sorely tempted to call them honey-like--evincing a wide array of floral pollens. The tones remain within a circumscribed range, the better to appreciate their variations, and overlap in irregular, consistently fascinating ways. And there's just enough sourness applied to forestall any worries of the overly harmonious. It ends simply, with no fanfare at all.

A marvelous recording.

Hermann Meier - works for piano solo 1949 - 1987 (Edition Wandelweiser)

In 2000, Edition Wandelweiser released a recording of Meier's music, "Works for Solo Piano" performed by Dominik Blum. The current release comprises the complete solo piano work of Swiss-born Meier (1906 - 2002), once again recorded by Blum, this time in 2017.

The pieces on this 2-CD set date from 1948 to 1987 with much of it from the earlier portion of that period (just two pieces from 1968, one from 1987) and they range in duration from a minute (oddly listed here as 0' 60") to over twenty-six. They're not presented chronologically. On the surface, and perhaps beyond that, one might think that the music is somewhat out of place in the Wandelweiser catalog, though one piece is dedicated to Urs Peter Schneider, who has several releases on the label. Meier apparently developed a kind of graphic scoring system (image below) though it's not indicated whether or not this was in use for any of the compositions heard here.

I don't know nearly enough about this area of music--post-twelve tone structures, etc.--to pretend to be able to comment even semi-intelligently about it and can only offer my impressions. The works from the mid-50s, like "Klavierstück" (1956) seem rigorous, forthright, even strutting in nature, quite volcanic and jagged, very dense. The work that follows, "Klavierstück für Charles Dobler" from twelve years later, while still extremely forceful, seems to allow for a bit more breathing room--some cloudy chords midway through are wonderful--and to at least allude to more pastoral possibilities. Actually, the earliest composition, the three-part "Sonata für Klavier" (1948-49) also seems to retain vestiges of a more Romantic approach. Perhaps there was a "progression" into the severity of the 50s, maybe influence of Darmstadt, and then a mild retreat? Then again, the one piece played here twice, to close out each disc, "Zwei Klavierstück für Lilo Mathys" (1955-56) has its share of space and delicacy intermixed with harsher thrusts, so I imagine the notion of Meier's "progress" is more complicated than that.

The previously mentioned minute-long "Kleine elegie für Gaby Stebler" (1968) floats dreamily--stunning. It somehow makes me want to hear any work by Meier for chamber ensemble. The work dedicated to Schneider dates from 1987 and while still as spiky as anything else in this collection, seems to refer, if obliquely, to song forms with melodic fragments buried beneath a rough and scabby surface; reminds me, slightly, of some of Rzewski's work from around the same period. The restatement of "Zwei Klavierstücke..." is delightful, stressing a series of staccato moments, allowing them to hang in space briefly, like icicles.

Blum's playing is brilliant throughout, bright and percussive, scalpel-like. I'd love to hear him performing other work but don't see anything else currently available,

As said, the music falls outside my normal ambit but, given that, I throughly enjoyed it. Would be happy to get the opinions of those more conversant with this area.

Michael Winter - approximating omega (Edition Wandelweiser)

If you look closely at the above image, you'll see a lengthy binary string. This is a subset of a "maximally complex, incomputable number" known as Chaitin's Constant, or "omega", after the mathematician Gregory Chaitin. Michael Winter has used this string, in a manner far beyond my ability to comprehend, as a seed for his piece, "for gregory chaitin", one of two presented here.

The first piece, "approximating omega", runs over 33 minutes and is divided into two fairly equal halves. Underneath it all, there are samples from 36 musicians, many of whose names will be familiar to fans of new music (I even recognized one: a sliver of Tom Johnson's "The Chord Catalog" as played by Samuel Vriezen). Over this, in the first half of the piece, we hear the voice of Muirgen Éléonore Gourgues reading selections from a text by Chaikin, from his book, "The Limits of Mathematics". The text is a set of rules and definitions, not exactly repetitive but self-similar enough to achieve a level of overall sameness. It's spoken flatly, as if done for an audio book and also, to these ears, sounds ever so slightly enhanced or smoothed, generating something of an artificial tinge, though perhaps not. Its boundaries are also often clipped, blipping into existence from brief silences. The sounds beneath vary a good bit, maybe more electronic than otherwise, seeming to roughly correspond to the length of each text section or sentence. Also, somewhere down there, we might be hearing cellist Judith Hamann, who emerges clearly and suddenly during the work's second half. It's a welcome entry, as I was beginning to find the spoken part somewhat tedious. But suddenly, over metallic clangs and tinkles, there's a wonderfully rich bowed cello (or multiple celli, or some other sounds from somewhere) that entirely wash away the classroom and reveal a surging undercurrent, twining and coursing. It flows on with subtle variations (maybe some melodica action?) over shifting sets of metals and electronics, very beautiful, endlessly entrancing. Very much a yin/yang kind of composition.

Not having any idea of exactly how Chaitin's Constant was used in the other work, a solo piano piece with Winter at the keyboard, I can simply listen to the outcome and describe it. I say "solo piano" but there is definitely electronic involvement--the first bright, single note is struck and held, undiminished, for some five minutes, at which point it's joined by a much lower note that is allowed to decay naturally. Subsequent notes, apparently from a prepared piano and perhaps electronically modified themselves appear in a non-obvious pattern, though I suspect the binary array mentioned earlier has something to do with it. That initial note carries throughout and, after five minutes of those lower notes, once again exists as the sole component, a pure tone (although on headphones, my ears pick up subtle variations, maybe just artifacts of my system) that ends with an abrupt *plink*.

An intriguing work and an interesting album overall. I may not be 100% convinced by this particular usage of math-related material, but it's certainly worth a listen and generates curiosity on my part for hearing further work from Winter.

Edition Wandelweiser
Also available from Erst Dist

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Martin Küchen - Lieber Heiland, Laß Uns Sterben (Sofa)

Martin Küchen is among the most thoughtful of saxophonists. His solo work often involves thematic content and one suspects he deeply considers his approaches to that content, even as (I imagine) a good portion of the actual playing is improvised. 

The title translates as "Dear Saviour, let us die" and the cover image is a photo taken at the Jaworzno concentration camp in Poland, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. While used by the Nazis in the final two years of WWII, it was also subsequently utilized by the Soviet Union under Stalin as well as the People's Republic of Poland to incarcerate, and often kill, ethnic Germans, dissident Poles and Ukranians and other "enemies of the state" until 1956. The death toll there is estimated at almost 7,000. The photo was taken in 1951 by a member of the UK Embassy and classified as "Secret".

In addition to his alto and baritone saxophones, Küchen employs radio, iPod, electric tambura and speakers. He also overdubs on two tracks, including the haunting title piece that opens the recording. Mixing breath and spittle tones with soft, descending laments, it's a ghostly dirge fitting in perfectly with the cover image--very moving. 'Music to Silence Music', for solo alto, interpolates low key pops with various quiet but extreme sounds, evoking (to these ears) a kind of forlorn resignation, a muted cry. Both of these pieces are fairly short, offering dark glimpses into the setting. 'Purcell in the Eternal Deir Yassin' (Deir Yassin was a 1948 massacre of over 100 Palestinians by Zionist forces) begins with the surprising sound of a tambura soon joined by a fluttering saxophone that, indeed, seems to refer to Indian singing or string playing in the alap portion of a raga. The immersive feeling is wonderful, the pale flutters like pigeons in the recesses of a large, dim chamber. Eventually, one discerns a faint voice, female, emerging  from the shadows (presumably Purcell, though I'm not adept enough to identify it positively--'Dido and Aeneas'?). It's like a response or a summoning, beautifully underplayed, the spirit circling around the edges, becoming more or less distinct, wavering. A fantastic piece.

Side B (I have the LP; it's also available as a cd) picks up in an adjacent space with 'Ruf Zu Mir, Bezprizorni...'. Bezprizorni is a term for street children or waifs who were often imprisoned for "crimes" of survival, such as stealing food. There's a calm, stately piano being played, somewhat distantly, beneath a more anguished, though still fairly quiet saxophone. You imagine one of those children peering into a well-lit, wealthy household from the cold, bleak street. The final track, 'Atem Choir', for six overdubbed "saxophone voices", starts with sparse, hollow puffs--again, I get a sense of coldness, of blowing into one's hands to keep warm. Küchen's restraint is very impressive here; listeners familiar with previous, exceptional work of his like 'Hellstorm' (Mathka, 2012) might be surprised. The breaths mass a bit, dissemble, subside into nothingness--just a stunning piece, superbly controlled though full of sublimated emotion. There's clearly death in the air. In what strikes me as a minor misstep, Küchen closes the longish piece with a church bell tolling a single, repeated note--maybe a bit heavy-handed. But it's a minor quibble on a deep, respectful and bitter look at a horrible piece of history. [After posting, I was informed by Martin that the bells in question appeared outside the space in which the recording was being made, just after the last saxophone part was recorded. So it was a serendipitous event that he chose to retain.

Highly recommended.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Matthew Revert - A Discussion Was Had In Your Absence (Tristes Tropiques)

I think anyone who's familiar with Revert's design work (a sampling of which can be glimpsed here), would be hard pressed not to draw some comparisons with the music heard on this recording. There's a similar transmogrification of the cast-off, the banal and the mass-produced into something worth looking at/listening to differently, often resulting in surprising beauty. The music here is a dense collage of sounds that seem to be derived from a bewilderingly large number of sources: everyday clatter, darkly spoken text, spacey electronic hums, chirps and innumerable other bits of detritus. The choices made are fine. Revert seems to have a predilection for silvered, splintery sounds embedded in thick, grimy masses, a kind of shit-encrusted jewel effect that's unique and, to these ears, extremely attractive. The opening track, "The Sincere Pleasure", positively wallows in this--an iterated, distorted voice weaving through shiny squeaks and squelches coursing through a sonic refuse heap. The aural space expands somewhat in "The Rewarding Conversation", more resonant but also darker and more metallic, the voice acquiring a touch of malevolence. "...slices and slices and slices..." "The Unintended Compliment" stands apart a little, beginning with intoned voices over an ambient hum, reminding me a bit of a portion of Cardew's 'The Great Learning'. Other subsidiary sounds emerge: vague flute-ish tones, high tinkles, shuffled footsteps. But the voices drone on. It's an odd effect--too dirty and cluttered to be meditative but persisting along that route anyway. An excellent and strange release.

Arek Gulbenkoglu - Of Cruelty (Tristes Tropiques)

Gulbenkoglu's work has always been "difficult" but ultimately rewarding to these ears and "Of Cruelty" (intriguing title) is no exception. There are four cuts here, each living in an entirely different universe from the other and each posing its own set of gnarly problems. But also, there's a kind of bluntness about the pieces, a "here it is, deal with it" forthrightness that wins out in the end, though I'd advise listeners to be prepared. 

"A Foregrounding" explodes into one's ears; my first impression was being plunged into a massive traffic tie-up while being shrunk to about ant size. Many of the sonorities resemble vehicular horns (no instrumentation or record of other sources is provided), several of them in constant blare, threaded with needlelike shards, the horns warping into higher registers and then outside the range of human ears. It's a solid wall with internal variations that obtrudes for 7 1/2 minutes. Wake up. "Innards" is the only track to substantially shift over its course. It begins with slivers of a woman's (several women's?) voice, appearing initially out of silences, those silences soon mildly infested with tiny bits of electric dust, intense but barely there. The voices acquire some echo, an electronic transmission loops, filling all gaps; it sits there for a while, subtly amassing some additional energy before, about four minutes into the 13-minute piece, it erupts into a very loud, thick torrent of liquid noise, something like I'd imagine one would hear were a mic to be submersed in flowing lava. The listener bathes in this for the remainder of the track. The amusingly titled, "Haste" seems to be composed of drum machine samples. There's a good bit of space throughout this piece, which runs almost 16 minutes. The predominant element is a kind of bass-marimba-with-a-heavily-padded-mallet sound, slightly resonant, that recurs over the duration of the track, sometimes in a regular (though widely spaced) rhythm, but not always. There's also a flatter, deader bass drum thud and several cymbal-like sounds as well as a hollow-wind segment, all of them clipped and appearing in a random (or intuitive) manner. It's quite odd, like a conversation made up of exceedingly terse and inherently uninteresting statements which, by virtue of simply going on and on and on manages to attain a weird level of fascination. I'm reminded of Henry Gwiadza's strange video/sound constructions, where banally animated figures intermittently engage in even more banal actions but somehow create this engrossing alien world. Finally, we encounter "Consequences". Entirely electronics of a liquid, loopy kind, it seems to consist of two basic strands: a higher-pitched, swirling one that remains pretty much constant, repeating every second or so, and a slightly lower one with a bubblier, more gurgling cast that varies within itself while also repeating, perhaps a bit slower than the other, causing a sequence of pattern and interference that, when noticed, is beguiling. It's simply presented as such and allowed to run as near as I can discern--an object of curiosity and, again, of weird beauty.

I like "Of Cruelty" a lot. Rather surprised at that.


Tristes Tropiques doesn't have a webpage but does have one on facebook

The recordings may also be ordered from Erst Dist

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Alan F. Jones/Derek Rogers - CEDARS (Sedimental)

Not that I'm about to provide a list of examples, but I feel safe in saying that there exists a sub-genre of improvised electronic music wherein a substantial portion of its constituent elements consists of, in one sense or another, melodic material. Sometimes it's explicit but more often, I find, it's a difficult-to-quantify sensibility that weaves among the more abstract sounds. There's a risk involved here, of course, a danger of over-reliance on more easily digestible sequences that can unfairly buttress work whose structure is otherwise unremarkable.

I'm not sure if I've heard Rogers' work before though, from what I can glean from the notes accompanying this release, he's likely the one more responsible for the various infusions of at least quasi-melodicism to be found here. And he does it superbly. Among the first sounds we hear, after what seems to be a relatively steady pluck at dampened, unresonant guitar strings, is the distant, slightly distorted traces of an orchestral tune-up and perhaps some initial notes; it will bracket the performance. Matters swiftly become dense; the taps deepen and echo, some (maybe) rubbed strings flutter through the middle ground, waves of white noise that seem made up of human sounds in an underground passageway. The whole is immediately ultra-evocative, though of no set place or situation. Some five minutes in, a single, high piano note is heard amidst loud shudders. Played live? On tape? No idea. It splays out slightly, remaining in the higher registers, playing a sequence of one, two and three notes, very poignant and isolated. A tinge of Tilbury. It's couched throughout by a complex but subtle, dusty drone that sharply foregrounds the piano as though lit in front of a dark, windswept landscape. Harsh, electronic rumbles intrude, sounding like a live jack being jostled in its socket, followed by soft clinking, a foretaste perhaps of the dropped coins that will soon become a more or less through-going presence. Another melodic fragment, a four-note sequence that resembles an old-time radio alert, now on guitar (?). It repeats with the odd variation, nestling into a prickly haze of long hums. That billowy drone, vaguely tonal in nature, predominates for a while, punctuated not only by the coin drops but by other mysterious sounds, movement on foot, breaths, many other things. I won't describe much more in detail except to note that the balance between the mundane and ethereal, the noise and the (imported) melodic is maintained throughout, along with excellently judged shifts in timbre and dynamics while maintaining an ever-engrossing structural arc. When the tuning orchestra returns, it's both clearer and transformed, warped into a rather amazing new sound-world.

A fine recording, brimming with ideas.

Aaron Russell - Red Guitar (Sedimental)

I'm more or less new to Aaron Russell's work as well, though I think I heard at least one Weird Weeds recording back when, a band of which Russell was a member. This is a set of seven pieces for the solo electric guitar of the album's title, all of them bearing a pure, rich sound. Maybe even more than the pieces themselves, which are loosely folkish-bluesy, the sound of the guitar is what enraptures. Most of the tracks are on the short side but they all have a meditative quality that recalls, say, Robbie Basho, nicely unfurling in a way that straddles the structured/unstructured divide, both very attractive on the surface and hinting at deeper concerns. Those latter manifest on the album's one longer work, 'Pink Lights' which, to these ears, is the standout piece. Over the first 2/3 of its 16 minutes, Russell reins things in wonderfully, iterating a set sequence over and over, subtly varied, allowed to hang in the air and resonate. Oddly, it reminds me of Branca's 'The Spectacular Commodity' though sans any bombast, thankfully. It does carry something of a regal bearing, though, a kind of clarion call. After a lulling five minutes, he shifts to a fascinating, almost alarming pair of chords, the high notes therein sounding a like a cry for aid; really great and sustained for quite a while, bending in pitch ever so slightly. Around the 11-minute mark, Russell alters course again, developing a lovely, ambiguous arpeggio (again recalling, for me, Basho) that he allows to recur over and over, with embellishments, for the duration of the piece. A very beautiful work, thoughtful and...calmly agitated.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Even sillier than normal (which is silly enough), given the increasingly circumscribed nature of what new releases I got around to hearing this year, but here's a list of those recordings which I especially loved in 2017. As ever, huge thanks to the musicians and label owners involved. Your work is enormously appreciated.

(alpha order)

Ryoko Akama - Inscriptions  (Suppedaneum)
Ryoko Akama - Places and Pages  (Another Timbre)
Cristián Alvear/Seijiro Murayama - Karoujite (Potlatch)
Antoine Beuger - Ockeghem Octets  (Another Timbre)
Olivia Block - Olivia Block (Another Timbre)
Andrea Borghi  - Sostrato  (Marginal Frequency)
Christopher Butterfield/Quatuor Bozzini - Trip  (qb)
John Cage/Christian Wolff  - CC  (Huddersfield Contemporary)
Isaiah Ceccarelli - Bow  (Another Timbre)
Joda Clément/Mathieu Ruhlmann - Kindred  (Marginal Frequency)
Seth Cooke  - Triangular Trade   (Suppedaneum)
Alfredo Costa Monteiro/Miguel A. Garcia - Aq’Ab’Al  (Mikroton)
Pascal Criton - Infra  (Potlatch)
d’Incise - Ukigusa  (Suppedaneum)
Charles Duvelle/Hisham Meyet  - Photographs of Charles Duvelle  (Sublime Frequencies)
Morton Feldman - Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello  (Another Timbre)
Fraufraulein - Heavy Objects  (Marginal Frequency)
Jürg Frey  - l’âme est sans retenue  (ErstClass)
Jürg Frey  - Collection Gustave Roud  (Another Timbre)
Jürg Frey  - Ephemeral Constructions  (Edition Wandelweiser)
Miguel A. Garcia  - Argiope  (Insub)
Will Guthrie  - People Pleaser  (Black Truffle)
Haptic  - Ten Years Under the Earth (Unfathomless)
Eva-Marie Houben - Organ Sonantinas and Drones (Edition Wandelweiser)
A.F. Jones - Four Dot Three to One  (Kendra Steiner Editions)
Alan F. Jones/Derek Rodgers  - CEDARS  (Sedimental)
Irene Kurka  - Chants  (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eric La Casa  - Paris Quotidien  (Swarming)
Graham Lambkin/Taku Unami  - The Whistler  (Erstwhile)
Mike Majkowski  - Days and Other Days  (Monofonus)
Catriel Nieves/Joe Wheeler  - Balance  (Marginal Frequency)
Jérôme Noetinger/Anthony Pateras  - Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be at All (Immediata)
Michael Parsons/Apartment House   - Patterns of Connection  (Huddersfield Contemporary)
Anthony Pateras/Erkki Veltheim  - The Slow Creep of Convenience (Immediata)
Michael Pisaro - Resting in a Fold of the Fog (Potlatch)
Éliane Radigue - Occam Ocean 1 (Shiiin)
Keith Rowe/Michael Pisaro  - 13 (Erstwhile)
Burkhard Schlothauer - More Chamber Events (Edition Wandelweiser)
Grisha Shakhnes  -  choice ambience  (Disappearing Records)
Grisha Shakhnes  - Ghosts  (Disappearing Records)
Linda Catlin Smith - Drifter  (Another Timbre)
(Various) - The Seen, Volumes I-V  (Confront)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Grisha Shakhnes - Ghosts (Disappearing Records)

Grisha Shakhnes - choice ambience (Disappearing Records)

I've been listening to and greatly enjoying Shakhnes' music for close to ten years now I think, both recordings issued under his own name as well as under that of his alter-ego, Mites. One thing that's always struck me is a certain underlying consistency in his general sound-world: continuous sound, highly grainy, sooty and dark, oil mixed with sand late at night reflecting glints of blue and yellow incandescent lighting. But within that world there's also an ongoing expansion as heard on these cassette releases.

'Ghosts' begins with a siren in the near distance and funnels into the kind of low, dirty rumble I've come to expect from Shakhnes, several layers thick, streaming but always varying within its flow. He introduces cyclic elements here though: what sounds like a marble or small plastic ball rotating around the rim of, say, an oil barrel and then some deep groans and thuds as from an ancient, grimy turbine. It's intensely atmospheric, easily transporting the listener to a different place, uncomfortable, possibly dangerous, but endlessly absorbing. Somewhat surprisingly, birds are heard on the second track, 'resilience', over muffled motoric sounds that impart a vague water ambience, as though near a dock, soon overtaken by a more insistent, slightly acidic electric drone. I also pick up a hint of the battered, mangled tapes that Jason Lescalleet used to deal in and, on 'a little fine tuning', the wonderful ghost piano images of Asher's, but in each case a push further on those ideas, again totally beguiling. Conversation heard through many plies of distortion (again, sounding as though from tapes left on the street for several years), obscure ambient rustles and rumbles, birds again, music from next door, a wonderful "musical" loop buried deep and, overall, a fine feeling of simply letting things play out, patiently letting tapes unspool to reveal what's there. Ending back in the street. A fine release.

The two tracks on 'choice ambience' occupy much the same territory, perhaps even derive from some of the same sources. But there's a greater sense of Shakhnes' immediate space, as though recorded from a room that looks out on trees (there are birds) but also overlooks, say, a construction zone with generators humming. At the same time, someone is moving about in the room, creating a small squall of noise therein. A great deal of air and resonance, though fluctuating into more claustrophobic and dreamier areas. Side B, 'let it perish', retains something of that buried melodic loop from 'Ghosts', this time dimly perceived under a wash of sound--I get a feeling of windblown snow though, considering that Shakhnes operates out of Israel, that's probably not very likely. A pulsing, ringing tone dominates for a while as the previously existing environment continues apace, slowly morphing, never calm. As said, I hear something dreamy going on and, again, this wonderful willingness to take one's time, to allow matters to unfurl, accepting what happens to "intrude". Both cassettes are full of excellent, thoughtful and tough-minded music.

You can hear for your self at the Disappearing Records bandcamp site

Monday, December 18, 2017

Seth Cooke - Triangular Trade (Suppedaneum)

If it hasn't been done already, someone should write an article on Joseph Clayton Mills' label, Suppedaneum. There are seventeen releases now, all of them at the least very interesting, a number of them--like the current item--pretty great. The focus of the label has been on scores and other accompanying material, often given at least equal weight to the audio portion of the release and Cooke's 'Triangular Trade' is no exception.

It arrives with a "title page", more or less, and eight 8 1/2" x 11" laminated pages containing words and images referring to the trade of its title, a system which transported slaves and goods between Europe, the Caribbean and West Africa from the 16th through 19th centuries with repercussions (not to mention extensions) felt and experienced to this day. Bristol, where Cooke resides, was the focal port of the English slave trade and the first page of the release centers the image of a plaque recording the fact, surrounded by related statuary and inscriptions, excerpts of text from London Posse's  'Gangster Chronicle' and apparent news items concerning lack of public funds for Hartcliffe, a very poor section of Bristol. Subsequent pages--they're not numbered and presumably the order doesn't matter--include historical documents revolving around the slave trade, news clippings concerning the legacy of slave trader Edward Colston who seems to still be regarded as an honored father of the city (Colston Hall being, I take it, the main music hall in Bristol), a portion of an article on the effects of climate change in the Fertile Crescent and much more. These are presented in an often fragmentary manner, roughly scissored from printed documents, rarely entire, offering a kind of dizzying picture, perhaps reflecting the confusion and lack of clarity in the thinking of the local citizens about their city's role in their history and, more importantly, the benefits the white citizens have reaped and continue to reap as a result of the slaving practices of their ancestors.

Cooke's sound sources on the disc include field recordings from three points near Pero's Bridge in Bristol (as well as from London and Liverpool docks), Ghanaian shells, djembe-feedback and more including (not that I could pick it up) a bit of Mahavishnu Orchestra's 'Planetary Citizen' "convoluted 184 times". It's one long piece, about 46 minutes, but very wide-ranging. It begins with overlaid harsh, scraping/ringing tones, sometimes buttressed by (apparent) dockside recordings and distorted speech--desolate, sorrowful and keening. This section continues until about 15 minutes in, when the heavens open up in storm and we hear the words of John Newton from his 'Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade', published in 1788 (not sure of the source here, possibly a television program titled, 'The Fight Against Slavery'). The sounds subside, once again nautical in nature: clanking, echoey metals, churned water. These soon cohere into a relatively pure tone, those echoes still in the background, that subtly pulsates, until an explosion knocks everything apart, a wave overturning a boat, perhaps. The feeling of depth, of largeness is quite strong, Cooke, developing a convincing, if abstract, panorama of not merely a scene, but an expanse of time and history. That complex, sine-like tone returns, more insistent and darker, spiraling and drilling holes in one's eardrums. Very gradually and in harrowing fashion, this tone mutates into a human-sounding cry, a kind of ghostly wail from the bowels of some cavernous depths, a piercing, accusatory call from Bristol's past to the unlistening, willfully ignorant present.

A powerful, grippingly realized work that should be widely considered.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Michael Parsons/Apartment House - Patterns of Connection: Instrumental Music 1962 - 2017 (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

I'd always wanted to hear more of Parsons' music. With Cardew and Skempton, one of the founding members of The Scratch Orchestra, his own pieces were minimally represented on recordings, with only three previously listed at Discogs (I had the split disc--with Cardew--of Tania Chen's readings of his work and recently found the Tilbury; have yet to hear 'Piano Music 1977 - 1996' on Experimental Music Catalogue). This release, two CDs worth, not only spans virtually his entire career (he was born in 1938) but also covers a fascinatingly wide range of approaches as well as instrumentation.

The CDs encompass thirty-nine tracks (including three alternate takes) and aren't assembled in chronological order or, apart from certain groupings, any discernible system, so for a listener like myself who comes in with few prior conceptions of what the music is apt to sound like, it can be a somewhat disorienting experience initially. The very first piece, 'Dispersal' (1999) is a pointillistic work for small ensemble, something of a Webern extension, very soft and digestible, a lovely version of the sort of post-serial construction that's not all too uncommon. However, the next track, 'Rhythmic Canons', composed only a year prior, harkens more to the irregular, interlocking processes explored by composers like Louis Andriessen, though again with great delicacy and beguiling smoothness. 'Percussion and Glissandi' (1999) enters still another territory, softly sliding strings bending around pinpoint wooden block taps. A trio of short piano works performed by the always superb Philip Thomas and dating from 1962 - 1968, return to that post-serial area, though with an elusively lyrical aspect that reminds me somewhat of Christian Wolff. Around this point, we think that perhaps we have Parsons' approach more or less corralled and then 'Highland Variations' (1972) is sprung upon us. The longest track here at almost twelve minutes, it's an astonishing and captivating set of for strings (which do a fair imitation of pipes). Presumably written for reasons similar to those stated at the time by composers like Cardew, Rzewski and others, to shift from more abstruse forms to those derived from folk and worker's music with the intention of making it more accessible to the non-highbrow audience, it's a brilliant set combing drones with repeated melody fragments, unabashedly Romantic and utterly absorbing.

The music continues to expand from there, into the delightful 'Fourths & Fifths' (1990) for solo flute (Nancy Ruffer) consisting of "simple" patterns reminiscent of Tom Johnson, a set of wonderful Bagatelles (as fine as Thomas plays them, I'd love to hear Tilbury's rendition) and much, much more. I'll just mention a few others: the mysterious 'Concertante 1' (2014), a brooding work featuring heavy piano chords over shifting strings and reeds plus occasional surprising explosions of electronics (Kerry Yong), a rare appearance of such here; several more piano pieces from the early oughts, cool and crystalline; a rich, intense and moving work for solo cello, 'Talea 3' (1999), performed by Anton Lukoszevieze; a Skempton-ish solo piano work, 'Variations' (1971); and the final selection, 'Three Tallis Transcriptions' (2003), yet another engaging surprise.

It's just a fantastic collection overall, not only providing a seriously needed compendium of Parsons' music but doing so extraordinarily well by virtue of the talents of Apartment House. Highly recommended.

John Cage/Christian Wolff/Apartment House/Philip Thomas - CC (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

Cage's work, composed in 1957-58 and combining both graphic and conventional notation, has been recorded often enough although, reading the excellent accompanying pair of essays by Martin Iddon and Philip Thomas, one quickly comes to understand the virtually infinite range of realization possibilities the piece affords. Between the decoding and arrangement of parts for the piano, the ensemble and the conductor (who is, apparently, quite capable of foiling any advanced preparations of his musicians), the entire proposition seems as daunting as it is freeing. Perhaps unduly influenced by the graphics included here on the cover and well known as a classic example of the territory, it's very enticing to hear the work as the wandering of the pianist along a series of pathways, through woods, fields and cities; delicate, even whimsical for the most part but rubbing up against enough sharp branches and burs to keep him on his toes. Describing it otherwise might be something of a fool's errand. On the one hand, it "sounds like" any number of post-1950, quasi-aleatory works: sparse for the most part--though there is a section about a half-hour in where the playing, especially the piano, is very dense and convoluted--fragmented, consisting of superficially unrelated sounds, extended technique expositions, etc. On the other, though, as difficult as it is (for me) to quantify, there's a specificity about it, a "Cageness" (or Apartment House-ness) that seems quite unique and immediate. Chalk it up to excellent choices being made, I suppose, to scarce few missteps, to maintaining a thin but pervasive tissue of sound, even in the silences, that allows the music to attain an organic aspect that feels alive, even pulsating. Fine work.

Wolff's 'Resistance' is brand new, commissioned by Apartment House and, among other things, displays the political awareness that has been part and parcel of his work for 50 years; apart from its title, the work incorporates a snatch of one of Cardew's workers' songs ('Revolution Is the Main Trend') and a transcription of Pete Seeger's 'Hold the Line'. The initial impression, after the Cage, is how much more traditionally composed the Wolff piece is. As I find with his music generally, there's a surface comprehensibility that dissolves the closer I listen, becomes watery in its difficulty of being fully grasped. This, I find, is endlessly enchanting. Written for a minimum of eleven instruments 'including at least 1 wind, 1 brass, 1 string, and solo piano', it's fairly lush in color, the contrasting tonalities conveying something of a garden imagery. Brass is more prominent than in the Cage, brief flourishes, burbles and even semi-fanfares emerging here and there. The piece is full of surprising moments; sometimes, it's almost like walking down a hallway and opening doors, hearing what sounds are emanating from within. The general cast of the music becomes more diffuse as it progresses through the middle section, wafting tendril-like, disappearing around corners. Unison lines pop up occasionally, like a short song or march, but quickly give way to less figurative motifs including, some 35 minutes in, a wonderful, slightly sardonic whistling section underlaid by tuba. Nothing lasts very long, however. As we arrive at the Seeger transcription, one has the feeling, perhaps, of disparate troops, citizens, having been organized, brought together from a multitude of locations and trades, cajoled and impelled to form the resistance of the title. A marvelous work and performance and a very strong addition to Wolff's oeuvre.

Huddersfield Contemporary Records