Eastman: Femenine (New Amsterdam)

What a joyful thing it is to encounter (while writing a short concert biog) Wild Up’s recording of Julius Eastman’s Femenine, released only three weeks ago on New Amsterdam Records. For a work that was almost entirely forgotten, by a composer barely emerging from myth, it seems remarkable that there are now at least four commercial recordings in existence (hear also: S.E.M. Ensemble’s 1974 recording on Frozen Reeds; Apartment House on another timbre; and ensemble 0 and Arum Grand Ensemble on sub rosa). This rendition, blossomed with instrumental solos (and arcing piano playing by Richard Valitutto reminiscent of the late ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny), may be my favourite yet.

Haas: Solstices, Riot Ensemble, Kings Place

Last July I swam in the sea for the first time after five months of Covid-19 shielding and it felt like a benediction. The ending of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Solstices last night – as the lights rose on the Riot Ensemble sounding an immense, reverberating, crashing chord after more than an hour of total darkness – felt the same, but more so.

Solstices is an awkward piece. Parts of it verge on being boring (although there’s usually something unexpected around the corner). Other than the progression from one harmonic field to another, there isn’t much of a shape to its first two thirds. (After the first ‘cataclysmic event’ around, I guess, fifty minutes in, it does become more directional, and there is a steady increase in intensity until the final dissipation.) The fact that almost all of it is played in complete darkness adds a lot, certainly: last night the faint glow of Kings Place’s cooling spotlights overhead gave one a sense of floating in space. Another weightlessness comes from the combination of darkness and Haas’s microtonal trickery, which makes it difficult to tell each instrument apart, a marvellously disorienting effect. And some sections – such as the tentacular opening of overlapping, descending scales, seem to spill, Akira-like over the stage and into the space before us. Yet while it is exciting and novel, sitting in complete darkness for this long is hard work (wearing a mask makes it even more so), even without having to find your way around a piano keyboard or percussion set-up. Before every performance of Solstices the lights are brought down for two minutes to give everyone an idea of what to expect and a chance to bail out. This is a piece that asks a lot of its listeners.

But quickly Solstices established itself as just the right work for this moment. (The last live music I heard before Covid lockdown was Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, played by the same ensemble in the same hall. Retrospectively that seemed about right too.) It’s a generous piece in that it doesn’t matter too much if you take a few minutes to get used to it; and after so long, we all needed that time to readjust our ears. Haas describes it as a love song (despite its title it has nothing to do with astronomy, but with the coincidence that he met his partner Mollena Haas-Williams on the winter solstice of 2013, and they married on the summer solstice of 2014), and it is full of moments in which players have to make connections with each other: notable in my memory is an early passage in which the guitar has to retune to the piano’s next microtonal harmony. Even in the dark it was possible to visualise the interaction of the two players, and vivid to hear the way in which the guitar’s notes drifted towards and then inexorably locked with and were embraced by the piano’s.

And then that ending … last night it was not so much breath-taking as breath-mugging, breath-dragged-into-an-unmarked-van never to be seen again. Much of the impact was due to the sheer joy of seeing live music once more – this absolutely is a piece that cannot be streamed – but this was simply the event that Solstices had occasioned. More of it was the sense of having gone through something together, making the work’s endurances and longeurs absolutely necessary.

After Solstices’ premiere at Reykjavik’s Dark Music Days festival in January 2019, Simon Cummings wrote that ‘Haas’ chords suggested plenty of waiting, the potential of light, though the light itself stubbornly failed to materialise. It begged the question: is the act of waiting more exciting than its fulfillment?’ And goodness me have we had to wait for this moment. It seemed ironic that after a sixteen-month break in seeing any live music, I’d chosen to wait another seventy minutes before I saw any musicians doing anything. But then the lights came up and we could see the flesh and sinew of these ten, brilliant players going at their instruments for all they were worth, and it seemed absolutely appropriate.

Releases and relaunches from Pamela Z and Rat-drifting

News of two returns/relaunches caught my attention this week.

First, Neuma Records has announced the rare release of a new album by Pamela Z, only her third ever (a fact I always found surprising for such a media-oriented artist), and her first since A Delay is Better in 2004. A Secret Code features studies and excerpts from larger works (including Baggage Allowance, Occupy, Echo and her piece for Kronos Quartet, And the Movement of the Tongue) and remixes and new recordings of favourites from her solo performances, including Typewriter, Quatre Couches, and Flare Stains. Adding to the excitement, Annea Lockwood has contributed sleeve notes:

I have long treasured Pamela Z’s work for its vigor, inexhaustible ideas, fluid intricacy of texture, and for its sheer joyousness. An infectious, often surreal humor runs through the whole album, brilliantly upending everyday experience. The letter she is typing disintegrates, flare stains on a road become animate, and in Unknown Person even the TSA’s mundane but weighted questions are subverted, and disintegrate in the hilarious list of packed garments and hopes which follows. Voice, the most intimate of instruments, is a shape-shifter in her hands, transformed by gestural control and electronics in her performances and mutating, time-stretched and compressed as Timepiece Triptych, and throughout her work, with a dazzling compositional virtuosity.

Second, word comes of a forthcoming relaunch on 16 July of Toronto’s Rat-drifting, the legendary Toronto label founded in 2002 by Eric Chenaux and Martin Arnold and home to many of Canada’s loveliest esoteric sounds. In 2016 the label lent its name to the working title – ‘Drifting off the radar’ – of a feature I wrote for The Wire on new Canadian experimental music. In that article I wrote:

Through the 2000s it was a focal point for a woozy, intoxicating brand of psychedelic folk that drew notated music composers like Arnold and Allison Cameron into the same orbit as post-rockers like Chenaux, Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli … The label’s credo can stand in for a lot of the aesthetic preoccupations of the current wave of Canadian experimental music … This is slack writ large.

There’s a great listening primer to the Rat-drifting sound here. If you prefer disorientation to certainty, getting lost to being on time and wandering over journeying, you’re sure to find something here to enjoy. July’s label relaunch will see Rat-drifting’s entire catalogue move to Bandcamp, as well as two releases not previously available online – The Guayaveras’s (Eric Chenaux, Ryan Drive) In the Market and Nightjars’ (Chenaux, Jason Benoit) The Natural Playmate – and three new albums by the Draperies (Chenaux, Driver, Doug Tielli), Golden Melody Awards (Driver, Kurt Newman) and eldritch Priest.

Richard Barrett and others: binary systems (strange strings)

There are several reasons I’m excited by the release this week of binary systems by Richard Barrett and collaborators (available through Richard’s Bandcamp page). First, the music sounds like it’s going to be great; I’m listening to the opening track, Dysnomia, made with guitarist Daryl Buckley and it goes, just as you would expect, into all sorts of weird and inexplicable places. (The ending especially offers a new instance of the slow, melting drone style that I think is the most characteristic feature of Richard’s work to have emerged in the last few years.) Second, though, it’s evidence of a sort of pandemic creativity that I drew attention to a few days ago on Twitter: videos, studio work, solo compositions, unusual collaborations, self-performances and so on that may in time shift the centre of gravity of what a ‘work’ is – within the compositional field at least; it has long been a more complex concept in other fields – away from notated works for an ensemble on stage in front of an audience and towards a wider range of possibilities. Traditional concerts and new works written for them will return one day, but this emergent diversity is likely a good thing in the long run.

Dysnomia is just such a thing. Without in-person access to the international network of performers that usually energises his work, Barrett has encouraged a network of online collaborators instead, and a means of creating work with them that is not only musically rewarding in itself but takes his own practice into potentially fruitful new directions. For some time there has been something of the studio composer to Barrett’s working methods: the way he layers texture-types, even whole bands of material, the management of transitions, the editing of modules to collage them together in larger polyworks (a part of his work since Negatives) and so on. With Dysnomia this is taken to a new level. Barrett has solicited solo improvisations by five musicians (a sixth, requested from John Russell, was not possible before the guitarist’s death in January this year; the album is dedicated to him), and used these as raw material for the creation of fixed media works in a process of duo composition that sidesteps the various difficulties of face-to-face meeting and online live performance. In a way it is a reversal of what happens at the end of CONSTRUCTION, where improvisation takes place on the basis of composed materials (to the extent that improvisation and composition can be viewed as opposites anyway, which is partly the point). It’s a method that recasts Barrett as something more of a DJ or producer than a composer in the usual sense, and challenges conventional notions of authorship, composition and ‘the work’. All five musicians – Buckley, Lori Freedman, Ivana Grahovac, Anne La Berge and Lê Quan Ninh – have worked with Barrett before, and this awareness of shared languages and forms gives coherence to the music, but the dislocated, distanced working method productively cracks that open too. Take a listen here:

Rambler releases of 2020

In no particular order, some of my favourite releases of 2020.

Liza Lim: Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (KAIROS)

An essential release of what will surely be one of the most important, powerful and original compositions of the decade. A transformative work in Lim’s career, you can hear in real time the disintegration of her previous compositional voice and its metamorphic re-emergence from the rubble. Shoring fragments (Janáček, Chinese astrology, the songs of extinct birds) against her ruin, this is a musical Wasteland for the age of the climate crisis.

Moor Mother: Circuit City (Don Giovanni)

Bleak, angry, restorative, hopeful. Camae Ayewa was a howl of productivity against 2020’s numerous oppressions. Circuit City, an album I listened to and excavated day after day in December, just pipped Offering, with Nicole Mitchell, released earlier in the lockdown.

Clara Iannotta: Earthing (WERGO)

One of a number of composers who have broken through into something much deeper and darker in the last few years (see also Tim McCormack and Iannotta’s teacher Chaya Czernowin): there’s a doom-core/drone metal vibe to Iannotta’s second CD that one can hear permeating the music of several other composers at the moment. Few do it with Iannotta’s lightness of touch, though.

Beatriz Ferryra: Echos+ (Room40)

I knew nothing of Beatriz Ferryra before this year, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The trio of new works released as Huellas Entreveradas (Persistence of Sound) in May revealed an important and singular voice in contemporary electronic composition. But this collection of earlier pieces, released a couple of months before, was the real knockout, epitomised by the previously unreleased title piece from 1978, a ghostly collage created from the voice of her late niece.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift)

Released in early January, Anna Höstman’s album of piano solos, played by Cheryl Duvall, is a capsule from an entirely other era. We shouldn’t forget that other life, though, and Harbour is a reminder of a more careless, casually meandering, simply beautiful time. Brief review here.

Linda Catlin Smith: Meadow (Louth CMS)

Any new recording of Linda Catlin Smith’s music is to be welcomed, but this issue of Meadow, released by Louth Contemporary Music Society near the very end of the year (launch event on 11 December here) feels very special. A 30-minute string trio, Meadow scrapes a little deeper into the influences of early music that frequently run beneath the surface of Smith’s music: like a Dufay motet it conveys an atmosphere of melody and polyphony without constraint, but also of contemplation and extraordinary warmth. If Höstman caught the end of the pre-pandemic world, maybe her Canadian contemporary points to a future after it.

Sarah Hennies: The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)

2020 feels like it was the breakthrough year for composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies. Last September’s Reservoir 1 made many end-of-2019 lists, but this year that position has been built upon and, remarkably, expanded with two releases: Spectral Malsconcities and The Reinvention of Romance. Both records are examples of a stark yet organic minimalism, characterised by patience, sensitivity and unsettling tension. The latter just pips it though for its capturing of love in the time of Covid – a negotiation of shared spaces, intimacies and solitudes.

Daniel Lentz and Ian William Craig: In a Word (RVNG Intl.)

When I was invited to contribute marketing notes to this album I knew nothing of Ian William Craig’s haunted combination of classically trained voice and crippled technologies, but I was quickly sold on his music’s haunted nostalgia. In combination with Daniel Lentz’s expansive piano minimalism, In a Word (the sixteenth in RVNG’s FRKWYS series of intergenerational collaborations) conjures something between the disintegrating texture of William Basinski and the yearning ghost of Schubert song. Wonderful.

Milana Zarić and Richard Barrett: Mirage (Strange Strings)

Typically for him, Richard Barrett has taken the circumstances of the pandemic and lockdown as a prompt to reexamine the fundamentals of his practice. In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, he began a reassessment of his work in view of what responsible artists should do in the face of war and parliamentary deceit – a process that began with the orchestral work NO and culminated (although did not end) with 2012’s CONSTRUCTION. In 2020 he has sought ways in which to turn enforced isolation to his advantage – no small challenge for a composer whose work is so enmeshed with performance and collaboration. One outcome has been a turn to electronic composition, documented on strange lines and distances; another is the development of the duo with his partner, harpist Milana Zarić, begun with Barrett’s 2013 work for harp and electronics tendril, but taking on a new significance with the curtailment of all other shared performance opportunities in 2020. nocturnes was one of my compositional highlights of last year, and the new pieces mirage, restless horizon and sphinx highlight still further Barrett’s refusal to constrain his imagination.

Angharad Davies/Tim Parkinson: The Quarantine Concerts (Experimental Sound Studio/YouTube)

The March lockdown represented a fundamental challenge to every musician on the planet. Many are still finding it hard to produce work under pandemic conditions. One composer who came fast out of the gates, even found the constrictions a spur to creativity, was Tim Parkinson. Parkinson’s 2020 album Here Comes a Monster (Takuroko) was released in May 2020, and somehow already incorporated compositional responses to quarantine. But this even earlier performance, from the first month of Experimental Sound Studio’s (still-running) Quarantine Concerts series stuck with me (at a time when I, for one, still found it hard to engage with new music) for its whimsical reinvention of Parkinson’s opera Time with People, played by him and Angharad Davies using Playmobil toy figures. For more like that, see also the split-screen performance with James Saunders, 24 Preludes.

Bastard Assignments: Lockdown Jams (Bastard Assignments/YouTube)

Trust BA to make 2020 even weirder and more unsettling. The Lockdown Jams emerged from short studies in making experimental music theater over Zoom and Google Hangouts, but quickly grew into a series of commissioned works by (among others) Marcela Lucatelli, Neil Luck, Alexander Schubert, Elaine Mitchener and Tommaso Petrolo, and Jennifer Walshe. As the series has gone on, the Lockdown Jams have taken an increasingly classical approach to Zoom/isolation aesthetics (see Walshe’s zusammen iii, and Thick and Tight’s wonderful Woking), but the early instantiations capture like nothing else the unravelling, baffling, inexpertly improvisational mess that was spring 2020. Read my review here.

Riot Ensemble Awarded the Ernst von Siemens Ensemble Prize

Riot Ensemble Awarded the Ernst von Siemens Ensemble Prize

Today it is a real pleasure to announce that Riot Ensemble has been awarded one of the first ever Ernst von Siemens Ensemble Prizes. I joined Riot in 2016 on the invitation of its director Aaron Holloway-Nahum, becoming a member of the group’s Artistic Board and its in-house writer. That’s still quite a rare role within any new music ensemble, but I took it at the time as an indication of the seriousness of Aaron’s vision for the group, to turn Riot – which was, then, still essentially an ensemble of recent graduates playing gigs in churches – into a leading international ensemble for new music. That faith has been repaid. To be part of Riot’s journey from then up to this major recognition has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my musical life. Working with professionals of this talent, energy and accomplishment has been a unique privilege.

It was a Riot concert that bookended my pre-lockdown concert-going life, and I couldn’t have wished for a happier or more enriching event on which to pause. Since then and in response to the Covid-19 emergency, we have been commissioning, performing and video-releasing new solo works for individual members of the group in conjunction with Zeitgeist, hcmf//, BBC Radio 3, the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, PRS for Music and the University of Southampton. To see videos of all the works we have commissioned in this series so far, as well as interviews with every composer, please see our YouTube page.

This Friday, however, you can hear the ensemble play together again as part of the Wien Modern festival. Riot will be playing new commissions by two of my favourite composers, Clara Iannotta (They left us grief-trees wailing at the wall) and Chaya Czernowin (Fast Darkness I: I can see your turned eyes from inside your body), as well as Ann Cleare’s wonderful, fragile piano trio 93 million miles away. The concert will be live-streamed at https://www.wienmodern.at/ on Friday evening, and also features interviews (by me) with the composers. The whole thing will be available for seven days, free of charge. Please join us to share in the celebrations.

Linda Buckley: From Ocean’s Floor

I’m really enjoying Linda Buckley’s new album, From Ocean’s Floor, released on NMC last week. Until now I’ve always associated Buckley’s music (I interviewed her a decade ago as part of my ’10 for ’10’ series) with a kind of lush, folky minimalism – almost an Irish Górecki, perhaps. On From Ocean’s Floor that side of her work is very much apparent. But it is done here with a subtlety of imagination that goes beyond that simple description. You may think you’ve heard before the strings and plaintive voice combination of the eponymous opening piece, Ó Íochtar Mara, but as Buckley’s melodies stretch out in unexpected directions, and as the voice of traditional sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird glides across the surface, the music is energised into something entirely new. As the work proceeds an electronic part comes to the fore, adding a hauntological tone to proceedings as the strings recede and are replaced by echoes, long loops, and digitally stretched vocals.

Fridur, for piano and electronics, takes its inspiration from the uneasy, fragile atmosphere of Icelandic landscapes (its title is Icelandic for ‘peace’, a complicated concept in relation to Iceland’s restless geology). This dark edge comes to the fore in Discordia, in which poppy synth arpeggios break down completely into a frightening howl of noise that could easily be added to the Stranger Things soundtrack. There is a chilling absence at the heart of these works that subverts any forceful declamations they may try to make. (I was not surprised to learn that Buckley wrote Discordia in response to her experience of moving to the USA, on a Fulbright scholarship, in autumn 2016.) What is particularly striking about Buckley’s work is the way in which the ear is seduced into these dark territories: her materials (plangent melodies, luxuriant washes of sound) at first seem straightforward; her motifs (oceans, floating, peace) almost twee and certainly not confrontational. Yet the intensity of her work is irresistible, and turns all these notions away from the expected: oceans are deep and dark, to float is to be unmoored, peace has a cost. It’s a subversion that many musicians attempt, but few manage this well.

With three more works on the disc – the homesick, Bartók-inspired Haza for string quartet electronics; Kyrie, in which Buckley performs on both voice and electronics; and Exploding Stars for violinist Darragh Morgan – this is a generous portrait that is full of surprises and unsettling questions.

Bastard Assignments 2: Lockdown Jams

Bastard Assignments 2: Lockdown Jams

‘A welcome reminder of the value of risk in artistic creation’: the way in which I ended my NZfM profile of Bastard Assignments, written seven or eight months ago, might be applied even more forcefully to the group’s work during the Covid-19 lockdown. Since early on in lockdown, the composer-performer group have been producing a series of videos under the heading Lockdown Jams. Until quite recently these have been short, experimental, and very odd.

They began with a trio of ‘Hangouts Jams’ (the third an editing-together of the first two), then a group of ‘Zoom Jams’ – the titles reflecting the early lockdown drift from one messaging platform to another before we all, like dust in a solar system, coalesced around the same one. The first few jams were barely more than sketched (barely even that); but at a time in which finished artistic work could not yet be presented, glimpses behind the scenes – at our bookshelves, our haircuts, our childcare arrangements – were for a while all we had.

The videos are made out of what I guess are improvised sessions, but the preparations (costumes, backgrounds, props, camera angles) and the edits (capturing awkward glances, corpsing, deliberate gestures and accidental mistakes) betray a deliberate hand acting before and after the recording itself. When I first came across them a couple of months ago I wasn’t sure what to make of them, but as I’ve returned throughout lockdown, their language has come to make more and more sense to me. They really do capture the feel of those early weeks of lockdown: a world being constructed from scratch, in which the old meanings were irrelevant, in which certainties were unravelling, and in which were all alone, scared, and desperately bored. A world that was anarchic, glitched, gonzo, primal. A world in which we all experienced each other one second out of synch, inexpertly framed, compressed and mediated by audiovisual processing algorithms. Edward Henderson’s grinning face, emerging from a glitchy day-glo backdrop while he plays bad keyboard muzak, might be one of my favourite images of the last few months. (In case it helps you make sense of all this, Timothy Cape below him seems to be reading locations on Google Maps while enjoying a pot of yoghurt. ‘Waterstones bookshop … aawmmmm …’. No, it doesn’t.) This is a cyborg world that continues to be silly and inventive and fun.

After the first couple of weeks, Lockdown Jams started to become more structured – although retaining that glitchy anarchy. There are TikTok-y performed transcriptions, experiments with feedback and multiple cameras, and then at the end of April a canon, a two-part invention and other pieces with a greater sense of unifying concept (even if Cape almost loses it in Pointer). These are works that are not about the pandemic, but are attempts to find artistic ways around it.

In May, some of the footage moves outside. And then at the end of that month one more video, Fugue in C minor BWV 847 (a title guaranteed to mess up some people’s YouTube recommendations) that seems like the most complete and coherent of them all: the four Zoom quadrants identically framed, the four performers working through a series of hand gestures in approximate canon with each other, a pre-recorded soundtrack that recalls the early Hangouts Jams; the Zoom format working perfectly for the hall-of-mirrors effect that you often get from Bastard Assignments performances, which are less often an quartet than a solo being done four times simultaneously.

Since Fugue in C minor, Bastard Assignments have received funding from Arts Council England to commission further Lockdown Jams from a multi-disciplinary range of artists, including choreographers Lea Anderson and Thick and Tight; composers Jennifer Walshe, Alexander Schubert, Marcela Lucatelli, Neil Luck, and Michael Brailey; and theatre makers Alan Fielden and Oliver Dawe. These have begun appearing on the group’s website, and more will be appearing in the next few weeks. Neil Luck’s Every Time We Say Goodbye is a darkly comic miniature horror movie about household spaces. Marcela Lucatelli’s quartet of pieces Griefs ‘n Tapes, Red, Green, Blue and Bleached, combine semi-deserted location footage (concrete changing rooms; some recycling bins; unused beach volleyball courts) with Abba soundtracks and cut-in videos of Bastard Assignments’ members performing bizarre, colour-coded actions at home. The fourth part begins in rehearsal, as the group inch their way towards a rendition of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (‘Sorry, can we do it again, I can’t see it’s too far away … hold your note until you explode … but then what happens? …’), until suddenly Lucatelli herself appears on screen, striking poses between the volleyball courts, and now – because we’re so used to looking at each other through our screens – we can’t be sure who is watching whom any more (are Lucatelli’s grimaces those of the character in Abba’s song, or of the director of her own work?), a very 2020 mise en abyme.

My favourite so far, though, is Alexander Schubert’s Browsing, Idling, Invsetigating, Dreaming, which has found a way to aestheticise the feel of messing around online in 2020, following random paths on Streetview, browsing Freesound for samples, playing with the text-to-speech app TTSReader, listening to music through a screen-shared Spotify playlist (music round on the family quiz?). At one hour, it’s significantly longer than any other video so far, but it retains a lot of the language of the frenetic early Lockdown Jams, greatly attenuated into an almost Zenlike idleness.

Lockdown Jams will be continuing for a while yet, like everything else. Works by Lea Anderson, Thick and Tight and Elaine Mitchener are in process at the moment and will be available on the Bastard Assignments website, or through their YouTube channel in the coming weeks.

[STOP PRESS: Woking, by Thick and Tight, went online just after this piece was written. More Streetview, and then a vicious twist … You don’t want to miss this one.]

Bastard Assignments 1: Profile for Neue Zeitschrift für Musik

Bastard Assignments 1: Profile for Neue Zeitschrift für Musik

The following text is the original English version of an article I wrote at the end of last year, and which will be published soon in German in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (3/2020; purchase here). Except for the addition of some links, the text is unchanged from my original. I will be writing more here about BA, and what they have been up to during lockdown, later this week. Stay tuned.

Bastard Assignments is a composer-performer collective that emerged around 2012 from among the student composers of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in southeast London. Since 2013, and led by two of those students, Edward Henderson and Timothy Cape, it has been at the forefront of London’s lively DIY new music scene (which also includes groups and concert series such as Nonclassical, Music We’d Like to Hear, Weisslich, An Assembly and the London Contemporary Music Festival), putting on concerts in derelict or off-grid spaces. These include a bombed chapel, a tunnel under the Thames, police cells, and, in 2014–15, a series of concerts given in friends’ front rooms. Many of their concerts have featured a relatively small number of like-minded composers (among them Neo Hülcker, Andy Ingamells, Josh Spear and Caitlin Rowley), and in 2015 Henderson and Cape were formally joined by Rowley and Spear – two more former Trinity students.

From 2016, the quartet began to work increasingly collaboratively, composing pieces as a group as well as performing them. The inspiration came from Jennifer Walshe and David Helbich’s composer–performer workshop at Darmstadt, which was attended by Henderson and Spear. ‘From that process we got some ideas about a much more feedback-intensive compositional process’, Henderson tells me. ‘I remember thinking that we’re not using each other as a compositional resource. We could be opening up pieces to different ideas, different ways of doing things. Rather than bringing the finished piece and saying “this is how you would perform it”, it was “here’s the idea, and let’s talk about whether it works or not”.’

Although groups of composers have called themselves ‘collectives’ before – one example in London is the Camberwell Composer’s Collective, whose most well-known member is probably Anna Meredith – these are usually ways of sharing resources, staging concerts together, and increasing promotional impact. It is rare for composers to work truly collaboratively, making their music together like a rock band would. Intrigued by what Bastard Assigments were doing, in April 2019 I attended one of their rehearsals in a studio space in East London, to interview the group and get an idea of their working methods.

When I arrived they had already been at work for two hours. Henderson, Rowley and Spear were seated on plastic chairs. Their teeth were clamped around bank cards, which they were twanging with their fingers. Cape was directing them. The piece they were rehearsing was in theory his, but the other three composers were all making suggestions – on different ways in which the cards could be flicked, how best to hold them to make a good sound, ways in which transitions between one sound and another might be made, and so on. The feeling was more like a laboratory than a rehearsal. Ideas were still being tested, the piece was coming together in real time with its performers, not in the composer’s study or ‘at the piano’.

On the studio floor were piles of objects. Some of them you would expect to see at an all-day rehearsal: instrument cases, sandwich bags, coffee cups, guitar amplifiers. Others were unexpected. There was a large cooking pot with drumsticks and glass bottles inside. A camera tripod. And a set of glittery hula hoops. On a large whiteboard on the wall was written a list of seemingly unconnected words: Popcorn, Car 1, Execution 1, American Werewolf, Dog, Foley, and so on. These were cues for Spear’s FEED, a 16-minute work involving all four members acting out scenes connected with horror and horror films.

During the course of the rehearsal, as the group worked on each others’ pieces they offered advice and suggestions to one another. ‘Don’t be too nice to the audience’; ‘Stick to your guns – stay wrong!’ There were lots of comments about pacing, in particular stretching things out in time so that they start to become uncomfortable and turn into something else; I was reminded of the routines of the stand-up comic Stewart Lee, in which a joke is told over and over until it stops being boring or annoying and starts to become funny again.

For FEED, the group video-recorded themselves giving a complete performance, which they then projected onto a studio wall and critiqued in terms of stage positioning, posture and action as they watched – a simple and effective form of self-directing that would not have been possible before the invention of digital video cameras, high capacity hard-drives and portable video projectors. It exemplified a combination of raw physicality and technological mediation that runs throughout Bastard Assignments’ work, and that is at the heart of its modernity.

‘We can be quite rude with each other, or very direct’, Spear explains, when I ask about their collaborative method. ‘The basis of trust and friendship that we’ve built up allows us to bypass that without people’s feelings getting hurt’, adds Rowley. ‘To some extent we’ve worked together so much now that we know the kinds of things each of us is going to like or dislike about a piece, and where something has come from.’

This love of directness – ‘Politeness takes up too much time’, says Henderson – extends beyond the group’s working method and into its compositional aesthetic. As in all great bands, all four members have their own distinct style. Several times in FEED the performers must lip sync to a scene from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) to increasingly comical effect. Rowley’s fierce vocal solo dot drip line 8918: EDGE confronts its audience with a vast catalogue of sounds and physical gestures made at the limits of the voice. Cape also writes vocal works for himself to perform: in his SUGAR CAGE, he performs a virtuoso duet with a digitally fragmented audio-visual version of himself. Of the four, Henderson is the closest to a ‘traditional’ composer, writing scores for conventional instruments even if, as in the case of his Flower – a slow-motion instrumental and electronic disintegration of a moment from David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ – that might simply be the instruction to play in a certain style or for a certain duration.

Yet certain shared preoccupations emerge between their works: experiments with duration, with the voice, with everyday or found objects and materials. All four composers avoid making things that are too artful, too commercial or too earnest, drawing on traditions of performance art, music theatre and video art, as well as concert music. Like stand-up comedians or cabaret performers, they are interested in creating and controlling audience expectations; yet working outside those more formal contexts allows them to be even more weird, even more subversive. In an interview with the journalist Robert Barry in 2017, Henderson observed that ‘the most direct thing is just if someone gets up and does something themselves. There’s no instrument. There’s no big load of scores. There’s no conductor or anything like that. It’s just them.’ Cape put it more forcefully when I spoke to him this year: ‘Total belief in notation – I think that’s the trap.’ In a new music culture which is often too cautious, Bastard Assignments are a welcome reminder of the value of risk in artistic creation.

Photo by Dimitri Djuric. Bastard Assignments performing Marcela Lucatelli’s Impossible Penetrations at Total Refreshment Centre, London, March 2018.

Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now

Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now

In 2017 I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of Chaya Czernowin’s third opera, Infinite Now, at Opera Vlaanderen in Ghent, Belgium. It was a remarkable experience.

The opera’s libretto is based on and amalgamates two stories: the novel Homecoming by the Chinese avant-garde writer Can Xue (born 1953), and the play FRONT by the Belgian director Luk Perceval, itself based on Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel Im Westen nicht Neues. In Homecoming a woman returns, in darkness, to a house she believes she knows, only to find that it is now hanging over the edge of an abyss and that she is trapped. In FRONT, soldiers from the trenches of the First World War write home to their loved ones describing the unending horror and despair they are experiencing. The feminine story of a woman who has come home, only to be trapped domestically, is mirrored by the masculine story of men who have gone to war, only to find themselves trapped in a different, unchanging eternity.

At the time, I wrote that ‘Infinite Now is about entrapment, and about finding life (perhaps hope not hope, as such, but at least a compulsion to go on) in such situations’. It is a very large work, which seems occupy to an almost overwhelming extent its available space, while always seeping slowly deeper into new spaces that in turn it fills again, like lava. Its sonic scale is immense: in a step away from many of her earlier works, Czernowin composed Infinite Now in large brushstrokes, without the infinitesimal detail that characterises scores like Maim or her first opera Pnima. The soundworld is conceived on a vast scale, in every dimension; like Merzbow written at the pace of Feldman. The huge orchestra is complemented by a giant surround-sound speaker array that moves electronic and instrumental sound around the auditorium with disorienting precision.

The opera’s six acts are played without break (to a total of two and a half hours). Each one begins approximately the same, with the clanking of an iron gate, and follows approximately the same structure. Although each iteration moves stepwise away from the last while retaining something of its genetic make-up, according to a meme-like forward-progress/call-back logic. While so much remains the same, each iteration pulls us across the threshold of a new understanding: every time something is stripped away, something new is revealed. As she told me the morning after the premiere, ‘It’s like when you see a person for the first time: you know nothing about them. But you think, after I have lived with them for half a year I will know. But it’s exactly the opposite. You see them for the first time and you know everything there is to know. You live with them for half a year and you know nothing!’

There is a lot about Infinite Now – from its title upwards – that seems to suit it to our present limbo-time. That is a trivial assessment of a work that is so much more extraordinary than that (and a trivial assessment of the catastrophe that is Covid-19). Yet it is fitting – and exceedingly welcome – that the European opera live-streaming site OperaVision has just begun showing Infinite Now on its website, and via YouTube. The recording and filming are both excellent, capturing both the scale and devastating intimacy of the work, and doing a decent job of handling the complexities of the surround-sound electronics. Infinite Now will be available to view until January 2021, but I advise you to take advantage of this opportunity as soon as you can. Headphones or good speakers recommended.