Hey, everyone, look at this:
Last month I visited the studio of James Bulley and Daniel Jones in southeast London. I’d heard about their Living Symphonies project and James had invited me to come and have a look behind the scenes.
Living Symphonies is an elaborate piece of acoustic ecology/data art/environmental installation that has been presented in three UK forests this summer, and completes its tour this week at the Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent.
Actually, the invitation came because after seeing the work’s promo video I’d posted a rather harsh reaction on Twitter; James, very kindly, approached me to set the record straight about what he and Dan were trying to do.
So I drove over to New Cross on a sweltering hot day, pushed the buzzer on the door and got given the tour of the Jones/Bulley studio, which doubles as their flat. Two rooms are completely given over to Living Symphonies: one is the studio itself, the second contains a mock-up of the 24-channel sound system that comprises the installation, and is used for testing and tweaking the model. Apart from a mixing desk and computer, and 24 speakers resting on the floor and hanging from the ceiling it is empty. The rest of the flat is full of remnants of the duo’s previous collaborations – I spotted the radios from Radio Reconstructions and the suspended speaker cones from Maelstrom.
There are two main components to Living Symphonies, which nicely complement the duo’s relative specialisms (James is a composer; Dan has a background in biology and data modelling). First is a data model of the woodland space in which the work is to be installed. This includes models for every species that lives within or passes through the space. All the different tree species are included. So are the birds, the hedgehogs, mice and squirrels. So are the moss and fungi. So are the worms, spiders and insects. Each species is assigned four different states – so a bird might be perching, flying, singing or feeding; a tree might be drawing up water, photosynthesising, etc. Each state is governed by probabilities relating to that species’ typical behaviour, which are themselves governed by data regarding the climate (rainfall, temperature, wind speed/direction, humidity) and time of day or night at that moment.
All of that creates a 3D virtual model of the woodland space itself. It’s not tracking what’s actually happening – although the climate and time data is fed live into the system – but it is generating a good approximation of what could happen in that spot at that time. It gets very detailed: the virtual squirrel, for example, is assigned a particular visual field. If it hasn’t eaten in a while, and in the course of its wandering around a pine tree comes into view, it will go over to the tree, climb it, and start to eat. When it rains, the mammals and birds head for shelter, and the moss, plants and worms become much more active.
There are hundreds of states in all, and each is composed as a short motif which is recorded and stored in Ableton. As life in the virtual forest unfolds, the relevant musical motifs are triggered. What’s more, they are distributed around the 3D space, so a bird can fly overhead from one corner to another, the trees sound from where they are standing, and so on. Listening to it in the imperfect space of Jones and Bulley’s front room it was still possible to get a strong sense of how the sounds model the physical presence and activity of the forest.
If it went this far, Living Symphonies would be an impressive bit of labour, but limited in its scope as an artwork, and dubious as a piece of acoustic ecology. Modelling a forest soundscape is not the same as modelling the interactions and interdependencies of the species within that space that make it what it is. Plonking a 24-channel sound system into a forest is not very environmentally senstive, or in itself aesthetically interesting.
So I was interested to hear more about the particularly compositional process behind the work. How had James come up with his materials? How did they relate to each other?
The compositional relationships reflect the ecological ones between species. Simply put, although each species state has its own motif, as it were, the presence of another species will alter that motif in a particular way. Partly this is to maintain musical order and balance (so the notes available to a particular motif might change to avoid dissonant clashes) and partly to mimic the behaviour of the natural world.
The motifs themselves are not meant to mimic the states or species that they are assigned to – no flutey twiddles for the finches, and how do you compose the sound of moss anyway. But they do reflect something of that species’ behaviour or significance to the environment, and at times the choices made have been guided by certain evocations; the use of harps for some species, for example.
Overall, the guiding principle is how well it sounds: is it balanced, is anything too dominant, is the mood right? On this last point, I was interested to know why is it basically all tonal and, well, nice? James’s answer was that part of what makes up the ecological space, as the listener perceives it, is the listener themselves, with their own collection of memories, associations, expectations, and tastes. By making the music more approachable – or stopping it from being too forbidding – it was possible to access that personal memory space and incorporate it within the overall ecology. To reinforce his point, he pointed to a copy of Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest, a beautiful travelogue/study/fiction of forests and fairytales. All of that is as much part of what forests are (and of how they sound to us) as the natural species that are living there. So while Jones and Bulley aren’t aiming to make something that sounds all gothic or fairy-like, our human associations with that are part of the soundscape.
It’s an interesting idea, although I’m not certain it’s not also a fudge. Another reason for making it sound approachable is that you want a non-specialist audience to come and stay to listen. Nevertheless, I listened to the mock-up for a while and it is clear that something sophisticated and multi-layered has been put together. I’ll be taking my toddler son to Bedgebury to hear what it all sounds like for real.
Too much work, school holidays, home building work going on, don’t think I’m going to get time to do a proper Secret Music for August. But it would be remiss of me if I didn’t draw your attention at least to the return of the Multi-Story Orchestra to Peckham Car Park on 7 and 8 August for performances of Louis Andriessen’s De Staat.
Get your tickets here:
Theory (no doubt not original):
1. We have entered a new classical era, in which the pervasive use and influence of metrics, best practices, interoperability, regulation and so on (consequences of our particular technological-economic-legal moment) have defined standards of formal “perfection” to which practitioners currently find themselves beholden. I’m thinking particularly in terms of architecture (legal regulations, circulation, energy usage, sustainability), but the same may also be said of many branches of film, television, design, literature, popular music and so on. Formulae and algorithms are central to the process. So is the consensus provided by digital checking tools, or sourced from the digital crowd.
2. Art music, perhaps because of its time-based nature, perhaps because of its preference for acoustic instrumentation and analogue practices of creation and distribution, perhaps because of its fundamentally ephemeral, non-commercial nature, is not subject to these pressures.
3. But at the same time perhaps it is. Perhaps I’m romanticising it.
4. What would that music be like?
It gives me great pleasure to welcome Michael Baldwin as the Rambler’s first ever guest poster. Michael is an American artist currently living in Huddersfield, who works around the medium of sound, specifically in contemporary concert-hall music performance contexts. In his words, he is ‘primarily invested in examining the margins of musical performance practice through foregrounding non-sonic aspects of performance, with an emphasis on physical mannerisms/movement and conditions of body-instrument transaction.’ I’m always interested in margins, as well as matters of musical performance and transmedial coding of information, so I was very happy when Michael offered to write a post for the Contemporary Notation Project explaining his use of video as a notational practice.
If you are a composer with an interesting or unusual notational practice, and you would like to contribute a short post on your work, please get in touch.
As a contribution to this series I offer a recent trio of mine, this is not natural,for double bass, piano and horn. In line with my interest in ‘physical mannerisms/movements and conditions of body-instrument transaction’, a live performance of this is not natural lays bare a rate-of-movement relationship between musicians’ bodies and their musical instruments.
this is not natural – performers: Corey Klein [Horn]; Pieter Lenaerts [double bass]; Tomoko Honda [piano]
The observer of this is not natural is presented with the original raw material of the piece in the first 15 seconds – material that for the remainder of the piece is subjected to temporal, technological and compositional applications of transformation. From these first 15 seconds, the parameter of performance I am most interested in is movement – in particular, musical-instrument influenced physical movement. This parameter, its transformation and, in turn, the remainder of the piece, brings me to the heart of my contribution here.
this is not natural works with video-graphic notation where the production process is important and sequential.
- Initial collaboration with musicians
- Determination of what physical and sonic elements are deployable at different rates of movement
- Original 15-second choreography taught to trio
- A variant version of original choreography taught to trio and video-recorded
- Only two differences between original choreography and variant version:
- Performers instructed to direct their line of vision away from each other towards a personal laptop screen
- Performers physically provoked by a sonic stimulus resulting in disengagement of line-of-vision focus and an attendant facial expression resembling shock
- Only two differences between original choreography and variant version:
- Variant version video-recorded from different perspectives and edited to show most important angle for a performer at a given time.
- Three videos made, with one for each performer
- Each edited video-recording treated as an object subject to technological alteration through time-stretching
- Videos stretched from 15 seconds to 9 minutes resulting in dramatically slower rates of physical movement
Variant version of original choreography
Individual video-score (piano)
In performance, the musicians enact the original 15 seconds of raw material from memory and subsequently turn their gaze towards their laptop screen where they continue by performing from their video-score for the remainder of the piece. What the observer is presented with then is in many ways an ambiguous repetition. The repetition is ambiguous in that it at times appears to be a direct repetition of the source material, and at other times either seems to be, or is, a clear departure from the first 15 seconds of material. My own experience of the piece, on a structural level, is one of constantly flickering back and forth in my mind between two modalities of performance-observation (looking and listening) relative to the original presentation of performance and the transformed version of performance, scanning for similarities and differences as they fit within the expectations setup by the initial 15-second framing of material.
Video-scores here are a mixture of descriptive and prescriptive notation that temporally (without recourse to presentation of past or future actions) delineate how a performer moves through space. Performers are confronted with slow-motion video of themselves, which they are instructed to mirror as accurately as possible, effectively embodying technologically distorted versions of themselves. Importantly, this embodiment is only possible through a constant mediation between the performers’ kinesthetic knowledge of how these slow-motion movements feel in real-time (or learned-time). Performers are not simply miming their temporally stretched selves located in the video-scores. Instead, they are always reading – always in dialogue with how they know to move, how they are being shown to move, and how they remember moving.
In my estimation, the presentation of the video-score (and the attendant presence of laptops to display the scores) draws considerable attention in the performers’ minds to body-instrument movement, and attention from the audience towards how musicians move and how they are directed to move – in this case through what can, at times, seem an eerie (or at least distance-inducing) technological means. By shifting the focus towards the arenas of musical movement and human-score interfaces, a resultant affect of ‘making the familiar strange’ (a well-trod artistic device) is manifest. This affect has marked repercussions on not only the atmosphere of the concert-hall, but also casts performative shadows on the pieces before and after. As I perceive it, the piece invites the observer to reassess both retroactively and prospectively the conditions of performance. In other words, the piece and its affect(s) palpably extend well beyond the frame of the piece and begin to seep into an audience’s perception of the surrounding performance context.
this is not natural marks my first exploration into using video-scores as a notational medium, and will likely be a mode of performance-information dissemination in future pieces. Other pieces of mine have used alternative scores/notations such as audio-scores, picture-scores and mimetic/human-scores. For readers interested in these pieces, more information can be found throughout my website.
 Bodily movements informed by transactions and mediations between musicians and their instrument(s) of performance.
 One will notice that the degree of temporal stretch is not constant throughout. There are portions that have been warped faster or slower (with the end coming to a complete stand-still). These alterations of temporal stretching are a result of both practical (physically possible) and aesthetic/compositional considerations.
 On this point I suggest watching both Renée Lear’s Renée Taking a Sip of Water (Human and Video in Motion) and, with a less transhumanist tone, Bill Viola’s Quintet of the Astonished.
 Although the notation is focused primarily on movement, it is worth noting there are parameters of movement that are not fully accounted for in the video-scores presented here, the most significant of which is amount of force to be applied across the space of movement. In this regard, my video-scores are an incomplete medium towards instructing performance, cannot be engaged on its own (without, I’d argue, faulty extrapolation), and is dependent on the embodied kinesthetic knowledge described above.
 Here I am thinking of Michael Chekhov’s notions of atmospheres. Chekhov describes groups of people and the places people occupy (spaces) as having objective atmospheres and that no two distinct atmospheres can co-exist long before one either takes over as dominant or the disparate atmospheres synthesize into one. I would identify three basic elements within a concert-hall setting: the hall itself, the audience (with their cultural and experiential background), and the event/performance staged. What I’d like to propose here is that the atmosphere exuded by this is not natural has the effect of silencing the audience’s and concert-hall’s emanating atmospheric energies, drawing an observer further into the piece’s inner logic and bringing under careful consideration both the spectacle of the event and the sonic byproducts of said spectacle. See Michael Chekhov, To the Actor (Routledge, 2002): 47-62.
(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)
Of the current batch of another timbre CDs that I’m reviewing, this one seems the most problematic. I’ve raved about Bryn Harrison’s music in the past, but recently I’ve found myself drifting further and further apart from it. With Vessels, an uninterrupted 76-minute magnum opus for solo piano (written for, and played here in one extraordinarily controlled and immaculately articulated take, by Philip Thomas), I’m afraid I totally lose track of what he’s trying to do.
Or rather, I do see what he’s trying to do, but all too transparently. Harrison has always been adept at providing descriptions for his compositional methods, relaying the particular effects he wants to create in the listener, making connections with psychoacoustics, visual arts and his compositional ancestors. To quote from the personal statement (2009) on his website: “Much of my recent compositional output has been largely concerned with the exploration of musical time through the use of recursive musical forms which challenge our perceptions of time and space by viewing the same material from different angles and perspectives. … Exploring high levels of repetition that draw on the pretext that exact repetition changes nothing in the object itself but does change something in the mind that contemplates it, [more recent] works deal explicitly with aspects of duration and memory; near and exact repetition operate in close proximity throughout and provide points of orientation and disorientation for the listener.”
The problem is that while I can appreciate the concept on an intellectual level, and I respect the integrity with which Harrison has followed it through, the music itself has stopped interesting me. Once one of Harrison’s delicate and, it must be said, attractive mobiles has been set up, it quickly stops presenting any listening challenges. Even Feldman – whose music is on the surface at least closest to Harrison’s in terms of its general aesthetic – threw in sudden changes of gear to keep you on your toes. Listening to Vessels, the only question that I find is why; and that’s the least interesting question of all.
The inspiration is Howard Skempton’s 2007 string quartet, Tendrils, but unlike that piece, whose ‘tonality’ is in a state of constant movement due to its use of continually changing melodic modes, Vessels is trapped in amber. It rotates and catches the light at different angles, but it is static all the same. Skempton holds stasis and movement in delicate tension; Harrison presents stasis in spite of movement. Incidental moments occur: chords, cadences, tiny melodies drift by, side effects of the unfolding process. Always present is the general drift through the same harmonic and registral space. Like tissue floating in water, each moment collapses as soon as you go to touch it. Eventually it becomes too much trouble to try.
(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)
For newcomers to the world of experimental music – hovering happily between composition and improvisation, determinism and experiment – to which another timbre dedicates itself, this is the disc I would probably turn people towards first. Although I would do that only on the basis that Laurence Cranes’ musical language is the least forbidding, based as it is on steady, even rhythms, legible, tonal harmonies, simple harmonic progressions (often just alternations of two chords). But, as Michael Pisaro points out in a lovely short essay on the AT website, despite all this Crane’s music is also ‘quietly crazy, even absurd in its extremely understated way.’ It certainly isn’t what it seems. It couldn’t possibly be. You can’t get away with writing music like that, of such surface simplicity as to have practically no surface at all. Yet Crane does; and no one else.
So what is there? I suppose we might each see something different reflected in Crane’s still waters. What I find, first, is absolute precision, coupled with an almost complete absence of redundancy. Clearly there is no ornament in the usual melodic sense, but neither is there any in a more conceptual sense. You actually try to project something clever behind the notes that you hear, those chords alternating in slow footsteps, but the music bends like a reed, absorbing and evading. It’s some of the most yin music I know.
Disc 1 contains nine pieces, mostly from the 1990s, mostly shorter. As well as three versions of Sparling – written for Apartment House’s Andrew Sparling in 1992, and something of a signature Crane piece – we have Trio (1996), Raimondas Rumsas for cello (2002), See Our Lake (1999) for alto flute, clarinets, violin, cello and vibraphone, Riis (1996) for clarinet, cello and electric organ, Bobby J (1999) for electric guitar, and the three pieces of Estonia – Erki Nool, Mart Poom, Arvo Pärt – for flutes, clarinet, violin and cello.* For those who know a little of Crane’s music already, this is the most familiar territory of homorhythmic chords, simple timbres and so on.
Disc 2 contains five pieces, mostly longer, and all from the 2000s: Seven Short Pieces for bass flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2004), Piano Piece no.23 ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ for solo piano (2009), Four Miniatures for flute, violin, percussion and piano (2003), Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani Part 1 for clarinet and auxiliary instruments (2007), and John White in Berlin for cello, electric guitar, percussion and piano (2003). This is the stranger of the two discs. The instrumentation gets a little less conventional, the sounds a little less pure – witness the percussive knocks and violin scratches tucked away in the Seven Short Pieces, or the noise-making and droning auxiliary instruments of John Vigani. The chord progressions get less straightforward. A general air of uncertainty starts to inhabit the music: the instrumental parts seem more exposed, without a solid ensemble homophony or tonal centredness to back them up; there is a greater use of silence, and of dissonance, and of dynamic contrast. It is still just as ungraspable, but now it seems even more bewilderingly so, given the seemingly greater density of musical information.
This is a significant release I believe; I hope it will prove to be. Crane’s strange vision has been lurking around the periphery of new music for a long time, almost like a secret handshake for those in the know. You’ve either heard it and been convinced, or you haven’t heard it. For those of us who have there are still surprises here: the late 90s pieces Riis and Bobby J, for example, have an almost unseemly lushness of sound; Ethiopian Distance Runners unfolds over an unCrane-like 22 minutes. John White in Berlin is something else again; in context quite a shock. While this isn’t exactly music of wild emotions or high contrasts, there is plenty here that reveals Crane as a composer of substantial range. Now that this release is out, here’s hoping it will introduce the impenetrable transparency of his music to a much wider audience.
*Crane has a fondness for naming pieces after people, particularly sportsmen, and among them particularly cyclists. It’s a curious footnote that the three cyclists with pieces named after them here (all of them former Tour de France podium placers) have all, since the composition of their namesake pieces, been implicated in doping scandals. Rumsas, who came third in the 2002 Tour, the same year that Crane named a piece after him, had question marks over him immediately after that race when steroids, growth hormones, testosterone and more were found in his wife’s car on the same day that the race ended. Julich (Bobby J) finished third in the infamous 1998 Tour, a race in which he later confessed to have doped. Bjarne Riis admitted in 2005 to doping between 1993 and 1998, including during his 1996 Tour win – again, the same year as Crane’s piece.
This practice supposedly has little bearing on the meaning of the music itself. In this context it is interesting to note that while one might expect music written for sporting heroes who later fell from grace to carry some unintentional pathos, even this is hard to hear in Crane’s super-blank canvases.
Sheffield’s indie new music label another timbre have been on a heck of a burn the last few months, and two more luscious looking discs have recently fallen through the door this week. With the eyes of the sporting world turned on God’s own county thanks to the opening stages of the Tour de France, I figured the time had come to give considered appraisal to some recent releases from this Yorkshire-based label.
The six discs pictured above are, in order of release:
- Richard Glover: Logical Harmonies, various (at66)
- Bryn Harrison: Vessels, Philip Thomas (at69)
- Skogen: Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long (at71)
- Martin Iddon: pneuma, various (at72)
- Laurence Crane: Chamber Works 1992–2009, Apartment House (at74 x2)
- Antoine Beuger: tschirtner tunings for twelve, Konzert Minimal (at77)
I’m going to give them all a short review over the coming days; keep checking back.
As you can see, apart from the release by Swedish ensemble Skogen they are all single composer portrait discs (and, in the case of the Harrison and Beuger releases, single works too). And in fact, despite its credit line, the Skogen disc is also a sort of composer portrait, being a 56-minute performance of an open-form piece by the group’s founder, Magnus Granberg. (More on this distinction when I come to review the disc itself.)
However, don’t get the impression from this that composer portraits are exclusively what another timbre do. In some ways this is quite a selective cross-section of their recent catalogue, much more of which deals in performer-led experimental and improvised work. Indeed the same might be said here too: the thing I enjoy first whenever I encounter anything released on AT is recognising the connections – not of aesthetics as such, but of values and sensibilities – between the different musicians represented, and tracing those connections back through the network of composers and performers for whom these musical relationships are the same as their personal ones.
Some of that is just to do with geography: many of the musicians featured on the discs above are based in Yorkshire, AT’s territory (as has been observed, the north of England is sometimes better served for new music than the south). London and Berlin are also important centres. But there’s something else too, a fluid, 21st-century approach to experimental music-making that isn’t hung up about composer/performer authority, that doesn’t recognise ideological lines between free improvisation, open notation (whether text or graphics), or a fully notated score. It’s not even a self-consciously radical approach to boundary breaking. Those boundaries simply no longer exist: Bryn Harrison’s precisely determined notation exists on the same plane as John Cage’s Cartridge Music or some archived improvisations by Hugh Davies. It’s just, shrug, what are we playing today?
Which should not give the impression that anything here is done with less than 100% attention and sincerity. In nearly every case these are exactly the musicians you would want to make the benchmark recordings of these pieces; very often they have worked closely with the composers over extended periods, as is certainly the case with Philip Thomas’s recording of Vessels, an epic 75-minute solo composed for him by his Huddersfield colleague Harrison. It’s also true of Apartment House’s 2-CD set of Laurence Crane’s chamber music; composer and ensemble have been collaborators for years, and this was a project born out of an immense store of mutual respect and affection (half seriously, Anton Lukoszevieze tells me he’s been waiting for this album for 20 years). Over the next few posts I’ll be digging deeper into these treasurable recordings.
(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)
Plus-Minus ensemble present five new works by postgraduate Guildhall composers, and a rare opportunity to hear Peter Ablinger’s experimental Amtssee bei Regen.
The 10th season of Music We’d Like to Hear gets underway, with new support from Sound and Music (as co-producers) and as always a lush programme of three concerts on three Fridays curated by three composers. First up is Tim Parkinson’s concert, Drums and Piano: pieces by Matteo Fargion, Jonathan Marmor (whose Cattle in the Woods was a memorable feature of last year’s programme), Makiko Nishikaze, Chiyoko Szlavnics, Kunsu Shim and Christian Wolff, played by Adam Morris (percussion) and Parkinson (piano).
Music for string quartet (with or without percussion) at the Cheltenham Music Festival: Steve Reich, Different Trains; new piece by Graham Fitkin; Steve Martland, Starry Night.
More Martland: York’s Late Music Ensemble (specially formed for the occasion) will perform a tribute concert to the late composer, who died last May featuring performances of his Reveille, Remembering Lennon and Kick, as well as pieces by Louis Andriessen, Jeremy Dale Roberts, Roger Marsh and James Whittle.
Cheltenham again, for the premiere of Nicola LeFanu’s new multi-media chamber opera Tokaido Road, set in 19th-century Japan and following the story of the artist Hiroshige. Created and commissioned by Okeanos, with a libretto by Nancy Gaffield.
Second instalment of Music We’d Like to Hear, curated by Markus Trunk. Pieces for string quartet by Joanna Bailie, Carola Bauckholt, Matteo Fargion, Jo Kondo and Luiz Henrique Yudo (another highlight from last year). All played by the Ligeti Quartet.
Apartment House give the UK premiere of Harley Gaber’s legendary The Winds Rise in the North (1973–4) for amplified string quintet, described by Keith Fullerton Whitman as ‘one of the holy grails of early minimalism’.
Launch concert for Apartment House’s long anticipated double CD of Laurence Crane’s chamber music (another timbre). Concert to include several pieces from the CD, performed by Apartment House.
Review of this (very special) CD to follow soon.
Third instalment of Music We’d Like to Hear, curated by John Lely. Music for viols and objects by Antoine Beuger, William Lawes, Alvin Lucier, Taylan Susam and Christian Wolff. Played by Phantasm and the MWLTH ensemble.
A pre-65th birthday concert of works by Dave Smith performed by the composer. Programme to include Ogive 1, African Mosaic, Guaracha, Frivolous and Vexatious and 8 pieces from the 1st Piano Concert.
Among a recent batch of CDs kindly sent to me by the Polish Music Information Centre (see also my thoughts on José-María Sánchez Verdú’s Libro de las estancios), was a disc of works by Włodzimierz Kotoński, composed between 1959 and 1975 and released as Polskie Nagrania PNCD 1521. I’ve long maintained that the most interesting composers of Poland’s avant-garde were not those who made their global names in and around 1960, through exposure at the early Warsaw Autumn festivals, but those who hit their stride later in the decade and at the start of the 1970s. Kotoński may have made his mark early on – his Study on One Cymbal Stroke of 1959 is Poland’s first piece of music for tape – but on this evidence he belongs to the latter group, and adds weight to my argument. (Adrian Thomas also notes how welcome this, and similar recent releases from Polskie Nagrania, are to our understanding of post-war Polish music.)
The most remarkable piece here is Aeolian Harp, composed in 1972–3. It is described as being for soprano and four instrumentalists, but that doesn’t properly convey an image of what the piece is like. Firstly, the soprano is not a soloist, but a textless instrument (and to my ears may even have the least amount to do of the ensemble). Secondly, the four instrumentalists play a total of 12 instruments between them – three zithers, classical guitar, electric bass, lute, psaltery, two Jew’s harps, small bells, recorder and electronic organ.
As a studio pioneer, Kotoński clearly thinks in terms of timbre parameters and their organisation. With perhaps the lute at one end and the voice at the other, his instrumental line-up makes for a steady continuum of sonic envelopes from hard attack+quick decay to soft attack+infinite decay. With the bass and Jew’s harps, there are also some interesting wah-wah variations in the middle. I’m put in mind of Boulez’s instrumentation for Le marteau sans maïtre, which can be lined up in a similar way from percussion to voice. (And Kotoński’s Music for 16 Cymbals and Strings of 1969 may even be thought of as a dialogue those two extremes, but without the middle.)
But the composer Aeolian Harp reminds me most of is Feldman. Kotoński’s piece is quasi-minimalistic in its construction, being built of slowly transforming ostinati, layered on top of each other. But unlike the music of, say, Reich, the interest is not in locking on to a groove and following its process of evolution, but in the global state of the sound or texture at any given point. Actually, having said that it’s most like Bryn Harrison, although about 30 years before the fact, and even then the comparison doesn’t capture the sometimes rapid and unsettling contortions that Kotoński puts his material through. Its connections to its Polish predecessors can also be heard – the whole piece is an extrapolation of the mobile episodes used by Lutosławski and occasionally Penderecki, but without the attachment to an older, symphonic ideal. It’s like the Webern to their Schoenberg.
Anyway, a remarkable piece in its own right, despite the number of comparisons to other composers I’ve just made. The performance on the Polskie Nagranie disc was recorded live at the 1975 Warsaw Autumn festival (there’s one huge cough from the audience midway through), but the playing, by Roswitha Trexler (soprano), and Karlhenz Böttner, Hubert Rutkowsk, Czesław Pałkowski and Bernd Dyckhoff, is on the money.