Lots of news!

Much excitement chez Rambler this month as one major project reaches its conclusion and another begins.

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First, the conclusion: I am thrilled to announce (to those who aren’t already aware) that Music after the Fall is finally out, good and proper. It has been available in the US for about a month now, but this week copies also went on sale in the UK. (As for elsewhere, I couldn’t say, although I know that copies have been read in New Zealand.)

In a related a flurry of activity, the following have also happened, some of which you may like to catch up on: book preview for the AMS’s Musicology Now blog; another blogpost, this time for the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate online magazine; a lecture and launch at Goldsmiths College on 21 February (lecture to be released in a forthcoming podcast); and an interview for BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme, to be broadcast 25 February, 12:15 (GMT) and available to listen for about a month afterwards. I have also put together a Spotify playlist that as near as possible summarises the book’s territory and story; more on this to follow.

If you’d like to buy the book, here are full details from the publisher, University of California Press.

site-iconSecond, the beginning: I am equally delighted to reveal that I have accepted the post of editor for the new, new music magazine Sounds Like Now.  Now in a monthly, online incarnation, Sounds Like Now grew out of last year’s crowdfund campaign. To begin with, each month will feature two feature-length articles, an extended critics’ column, listings, short items, news and more. It is hoped that if the magazine is a success, we will be able to grow quite quickly. The first issue will be published to subscribers on 1 May; keep an eye on www.soundslikenow.net for more details as they become available. If you have an queries, meanwhile, or would like to suggest ideas for future articles, please feel free to get in touch with me at editor [at] soundslikenow [dot] net.

Riot Ensemble: Celia’s Toyshop at Brixton East 1871

37123-9977866-page8_jpgStill looking for something to do tomorrow evening? You could do much worse than get down to the funky Brixton East 1871 to see the Riot Ensemble’s first concert of 2017. The programme features an array of UK and world premieres by some outstanding young compositional talent:

Utku AsurogluHayirli Olsun (UK premiere)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Shades of Silence (UK premiere)

Kerry Andrew: Hammock
Michael Cryne: Celia’s Toyshop  (world premiere)
Evan Johnson: Wolke über Bäumen  (UK premiere)

Jack Sheen: Television Continuity Poses

Tickets, just £10 (£5 for students), are available online. I’m told this one is selling well, so you may not want to rely on the door.

A little more on Eastman

The broadcast on Radio 3 of a live recording from the first day of LCMF’s Eastman weekend, available on iPlayer until 3rd March, offers the opportunity to reconsider Eastman’s Femenine, as given by Apartment House that December evening.

When I wrote about that concert, immediately afterwards on the tube home, I was ambivalent about the work’s success. ‘Unfocussed – half-finished, even’ was part of my description. I’m now wondering if my expectations weren’t just all out of whack. I was going in to hear Eastman, relatively unfamiliar to me, against a backdrop of much more familiar 1970s New Yorkery – not just minimalism, but also disco, No Wave, the beginnings of hip-hop and more. God knows why I wanted to load so much onto one composer, but there you are.

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Relistening, as I am now, it seems much clearer to me that Eastman’s contribution was not to exemplify a perfect coming together (ha) of all that, the missing link between Rhys Chatham and Afrika Bambaataa, perhaps, but the way in which his art cuts (often very determinedly so) across those collected expectations, as though anticipating the stereotypes coming down the track as they were being born. Black, gay, experimental New Yorker: listening 40 years on, we expect (I confess, I expected) something muscular, Afro-futuristic, flamboyantly defiant. Femenine, though, is not that, at least not in any direct way.

What it is, however, is the most tender, most erotically charged work of minimalism in the canon. From the fuzzy/fizzing pulse of those sleigh bells, the shiver of the opening riff, the way both rub against each other instead of lock into machine synchronism. From the start this is the sound of minimalism unbuttoning at the seams. Still more excitingly, on hearing the piece for the second time and understanding it better, is the way in which it defers climax, refusing to build in the same way as In C, even though all the parts are there. Indeed, climax is bathetically undercut in the final section when the piano, which to this point has been the locus of much of the music’s most arresting curls and quivers, slams in with repeated chords jarringly, comically out of whack with the prevailing harmony. When you first hear them you assume something must have gone wrong, but they keep returning so they must be intentional – even though they appear not to make sense. Coming back to the piece, and having such a long run-up to them once more, they make a whole lot more sense: an hour in, Eastman has to give us something, but he’s damned if he’s going to capitulate to our comfortable sensibilities. Here’s your climax, the music says. How d’you like that?

Given the title’s incorporation of ‘men’ within the frame of ‘feminine’ there’s probably a lot to say on the gender politics that might surround all this. I’ll just say this, from my own perspective as a listener. I went into Femenine with a particular image of masculinity in mind, one informed by and modelled by the mainstream minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass (and Rzewski): propulsive, organised, determined. I even had the image of a boxing match in mind when I introduced Rzewski’s Coming Together. (And that is a piece about manhood on one level, although of a complicated sort.) Eastman models a completely different experience, something softer, more complex, less predictable and, in its complete refusal to bow to a system on any level, more disciplined and provocative. Resistance is fertile, reads the placard.

Julius Eastman’s Soft Power

Holland Park tube was closing early, and for fear of being stranded I left early, just as Apartment House were beginning to crank up Eastman’s joyous, riff-infused Stay on it. (I read on Twitter that this was a cracker.) So my last piece of live music for the year is his comparatively modest Hail Mary. Only recent surfaced from a letter to Eastman’s fellow composer Rocco di Pietro, it was receiving its premiere tonight from Elaine Mitchener and Philip Thomas.

If I’ve learnt anything about Eastman in the two concerts I’ve heard this weekend, it is that he exploited minimalism – with its language of loops and repeats – to wholly different expressive ends than his better-known peers. Hail Mary turns to faith, and specifically the Catholic Rosary: Europe’s great ancient loop. Mitchener reprises the half-spoken, half-sung function of Thursday’s Coming Together, but this time in a voice seemingly on the edge of breath. Thomas’s piano part outlines sparse arpeggios, a musical setting that simultaneously envelopes, gently colours and fully respects the vocal line it sits behind. Written six years before Eastman’s death, it nevertheless carries a chill of biography. A fitting end to 2016.

The middle third of the concert was dominated by excerpts from Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning, originally written for a Robert Wilson production of Euripedes’ Medea. Russell’s score, I understand, consists of little more than two chords, which had been arranged into something more promising by Apartment House keyboardist Kerry Yong. Yong’s arrangements, which played subtly with the tone palette available to him (keyboard, piano, vibes, cello, flute, violin), were charming enough, but over time Russell’s restricted materials accumulated some serious longeurs, especially for those of us watching in standing room only.

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Nothing like that could be said about Gay Guerrilla. Scored for an unspecified number of pianos, it was given here in a version for two pianos, eight hands, by Zubin Kanga, Rolf Hind, Eliza McCarthy and Siwan Rhys. Over the course of 30 minutes it builds from single pulsing notes to great overlapping sweeps of sound that crash across the keyboard, before ending where it began, no longer an anonymous pulse, but a piercing beam of tone. More than Coming Together on Thursday, this floored me. To voice a comparison that occurred to me while listening, it contained all the emotional beats of the best Reich – the chord changes, the textures – but without the uncomfortable feeling that affects the worst: that you’re being had. Everything about this felt felt. It had a real grain to it. ‘Like Tony Conrad’ someone suggested afterwards, and yes, but while Conrad found roughness in his sound, in cheap violins and overdriven amps, Eastman’s is one of of form, of imagination, a kind of caprice. Gay Guerrilla speaks of a soft kind of power, of touches and songs and dancing feet, but also of determination, a proof that if you stick with something you will reach somewhere unexpected and special. One of my best musical experiences of the year.

Last night: Julius Eastman at LCMF

Off to Holland Park for the first night of LCMF’s four-day Julius Eastman retrospective. There’s a biting cold in the air tonight, and the top deck of the bus is all steamed up. My chest is tight.

I’m nervously excited about this gig. I’ve admired Eastman’s work from afar, but this will be my first real engagement with it. And it has such a formidable reputation – anything might happen. Femenine’s 70+ minutes are underpinned by a non-stop pulse of mechanised sleigh bells. What will the 40th, 50th, 70th minutes be like? Will I get it? What if I don’t? There’s a real aura of FOMO around Eastman’s music, performances of it are so rare, his reputation so esteemed.

No such fears with Coming Together, one of my all-time favourite pieces. If I ever become a boxer (could happen!) this will be my walk-out music. This I am really looking forward to.

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Warehouse. Ex-industrial space. Featured in Antonioni’s Blow-up. The usual LCMF benches. (Do they own these now, or just hire them every time?) The streets around contain picturesque mews, architect-designed houses, the Turkmen embassy. Inside is peeling brickwork and an array of industrial heaters to make things habitable. Of two types, they fill the space with a bloody orange glow and a roar like small jet engines. The crowd is mostly but not exclusively young, male, hip. ‘I didn’t expect so many whiteys’, I overhear one lady in the interval.

(I was never hip, and I may no longer qualify as young. White and male, though, in I guess what must be a banner year for my kind.)

Fuck. Coming Together was absolutely electric. Elaine Mitchener gives it everything, yet still has enough for a sublime (and unadvertised) performance of Attica to follow. [UpdateI’ve since been told that although it’s common now to hear Coming Together on its own, the two pieces were originally composed as two parts of a whole.] It’s a classic pairing, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful here, but actually I’d have liked a couple of minutes to get my breath back after CT. Something about those words sends shivers down my spine: ‘I can act with clarity and meaning’. I listened with heart bursting, eyes moist, hands clenched into tight fists. Rzewski is here; I hope he enjoyed it just as much.

And so to Femenine. On the wall at the back of the stage is something that looks like a mechanised sleigh-bell contraption. But the interval bell itself is a taped loop instead.

In fact that’s the bells for the piece too. Apparently the mechanised system worked well but was too noisy to be practical, so a 13-bar loop of chinking bells was used instead (two sets, it sounded like, phasing back and forth against each other).

The bells are a curious component. At first they sound like an In C-ish pulse marker. Except that their sound is much fizzier than Riley’s chiming keyboard. It’s as much tinnitus hum as it is pulse.

And then there’s the fact that they’re deliberately running at a slightly faster tempo to the players themselves. So if they are a pulse, they’re locked to a completely different grid. This is very disconcerting to listen to and must a huge challenge to play against. In the end, the bells become a kind of noise backdrop, related to the rest of the music by association more than syntax. I found myself tuning in and out, going for minutes at a stretch without hearing them.

And the rest? Honestly, it didn’t grip me as tightly as some of my first encounters with other so-called minimalist so-called masterpieces. Compared to Rzewski’s precision rage it felt unfocussed – half-finished, even, although this was probably a consequence of the score’s incomplete existence. But it itched and troubled in very good ways more than anything I’ve ever heard by the supposed masters of this game. Its looseness produced some of its best moments, when Eastman and the players injected elements of jazz and blues that lie outside the familiar minimalist gamut but are in fact embedded deep within its DNA. It had a forthrightness and honesty in that way – and offered a profound challenge too, which the following day I am still working my way through. In some ways, Femenine is exactly what you would expect, in its steady accumulation of added-note tonal harmonies and motifs, sweet and beguiling. In other, more lasting ways, however, it is strange and slippery, and calls you urgently back for more.

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LCMF returns for more Eastman this Saturday and Sunday. Tickets here. If that’s not enough Eastman for you for one weekend, coincidentally and simultaneously, Mr Mineshaft, a play about Eastman’s life, is playing until Sunday evening at Theatre Utopia, Matthews Yard, Croydon. Tickets for that may be bought here.

Book Review: Perspectives on the Music of Christopher Fox: Straight Lines in Broken Times

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Edited by Rose Dodd. Ashgate/Routledge.

Christopher Fox is one of the UK’s most widely admired composers. His students and friends within music are many; and all speak of him with great fondness. He has maintained for several decades now an original, wide-ranging yet distinctive compositional voice. His influence, as a composer, teacher and writer, pervades the scene in the UK, as well as elsewhere (he has been an important inspiration to a number of Canadian composers, for example).

Yet his reputation, like his music, is understated. In 1998 Ian Pace wrote an important survey article for Musical Times (‘Northern Light’, Musical Times 139, pp.33–44), but until the publication of this book this has remained almost the only major English-language look at the composer (Philip Clark also wrote a profile piece for Gramophone in 2013, issue 15). Fox himself has written or spoken a few times about his music, particularly in recent years – essential readings include the essays ‘Hybrid Temperaments and Structural Harmony: A Personal History’ (Contemporary Music Review, 22/1–2, 2003, pp.123–39) and ‘Why Experimental? Why Me?’ (in James Saunders, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, Ashgate, 2009, pp.7–26), and the interviews with James Saunders in The Ashgate Research Companion, pp.261–9 and James Weeks (‘More Heat, More Light: Christopher Fox in Conversation’, Tempo, no.236, 2006, pp.13–19). This new volume also includes lots of Fox’s own words, in the form of one essay (‘Mapping the words: A composer’s view of the role of text in music’) and two interviews, both with former students, Claudia Molitor and Nikki McGavin (née Cassidy). Normally, placing too much emphasis on a composer’s own words would be a big no-no: the authority of the artist setting too rigid an agenda and closing down alternative avenues of interpretation. Yet Fox is too self-reflective a thinker for that to be a great concern.

Indeed, the chapters in this collection in which Fox is involved are among its strongest. The interviews with Molitor and McGavin, Fox’s own essay, and that by Bob Gilmore – one of the last things he would write – are lively and fascinating. (Gilmore’s in particular is a lovely tribute to his good friend and colleague, and achieves the miraculous feat of making a discussion of syntonic commas readable and even enjoyable. Only Bob.) The chapters by Björn Heile and Philip Thomas (on music theatre and the piano music, respectively) are learned yet full of insight; that by Stephen Chase contains as many choice nuggets of interpretation on John Zorn, Kevin Volans, Howard Skempton and others as it does on Fox himself. The chapters by Roger Heaton (harmony, and the early works for clarinet), and Monty Adkins (electronics) admittedly left me a little cold, but this is a stylistic criticism rather than a musicological one: both contain much that will be of great value to scholars of Fox and contemporary music, now and into the future. The only real oddity is the chapter by Dodd herself, which closes the book. Titled ‘Ecstatic and Dutch’ it looks at structuralist approaches to minimalism in Fox’s music. It is odd because after several chapters that argue for the unclassifiability of Fox’s stylistic palette (which ranges from Fluxus-like experimentalism to postminimalism), it is strange to conclude with a chapter focussing on Fox as an –ist of any stripe, although this is nuanced at the very end.

Minor gripes over, some things that I really enjoyed. Claudia Molitor’s interview, preceded by a short excursion on the status of notation within the realisation of music, is deliciously nerdy. Molitor opens up a (frankly unpromising) line of questioning about stationery, but pursues it doggedly until it leads Fox to fascinating and pertinent insights about the relationship of composer to performer, the idea of scores as maps, the unfortunate role of notation in keeping the audience at arm’s length, and the merits (or otherwise) of posting downloadable PDFs to your website. This is stuff any young composer should read and think about.

The importance of building relationships with performers returns again in Nikki McGavin’s interview, in which Fox makes the striking observation that ‘one of the things that makes composition such a rich form of music making’ is exactly the fact that at some time, thanks to the permanence of the notation, ‘there will come a point when the people who play the music will know it better than I do. At that point is the music “mine”, “theirs” or “ours”?’ (p.99).

In fact, Fox’s oeuvre might be described just as meaningfully in terms of those relationships – with the Ives Ensemble, Anton Lukoszevieze and Apartment House, Ian Pace, EXAUDI, The Clerks, and more – as by its works. It’s notable that one of the first extended pieces of writing on Fox, Pace’s Musical Times article, was by a performer, and two more, clarinettist Roger Heaton and pianist Philip Thomas, are represented here. Both bring insights into what it is like to play a composer whose music is so emphatically for doing. (A third, Lukoszevieze, appears as photographer of the cover photos.)

I could go on; there is a lot contained within this relatively slim volume, representing an economy of means and expression of which I’m sure its subject would approve. Ashgate’s pricing model means (again) that this book will remain out of reach for the general public, but if you have access to a university library, or lots of money (on Amazon it’s £75.99 for hardcover; £34.99 for Kindle) I can recommend this sustained and broad study of one of our finest composers.

Of further interest: here’s a short Radio 3 documentary on Fox’s re:play for cello and recording devices, with contributions from Fox, Lukoszevieze and Aleks Kolkowski.

Resilient Music

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Listening to James Weeks’s recent CD Signs of Occupation (métier msv 28559) against the backdrop of the last few days, I find myself drawn to its sheer robustness as much as anything else. In sombre moments, I sometimes imagine what art, what music, would be left in the instance of a Station Eleven-type apocaplyse, and I take great comfort in the fact that much of what I love would or could survive, more or less indefinitely. Not everything, of course. All music recorded on electronic media would – ironically – become ephemeral, as the fuel ran out and the generators wound down, or were conserved for light and heat. Orchestral and large ensemble music – and opera – also fade through impracticality, or become radically transformed. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a travelling band of actors and musicians cross a plague-ravaged North America, putting on scratch performances of Shakespeare at settlements on the road, and I can imagine versions of Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute surviving in such circumstances.

But the music with the most fighting chance would be that which made the least demands on resources: small ensembles, simple, portable instruments (no pianos!), all acoustic, flexible with regard to performance space, accommodating of untrained musicians, rewarding to play as to listen to, and in tune with its environment. Music that was, in these respects at least, close to folk music, and that addressed itself to a similar set of performance conditions.

There is a particular strand of experimental music that meets these criteria – a lot of it being composed in the UK, but far from exclusive to this country – and that I have begun to think of as resilient music. Weeks’s chamber pieces, several of them represented on Signs of Occupation, as well as vocal works like The World in tune are exemplary. Looping Busker Music (2013) on the métier CD, for example, is for a quartet of clarinet, violin, guitar and accordion and, apart from the inclusion of a tape of sampled field recordings, sounds truly resilient: simple, artless, imbued with the joy of its own existence. Furthermore, pieces like this, and the soprano solo Nakedness (2012, recorded on this disc) thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life.

Michael Finnissy (Weeks’s teacher) is an important influence on James’s compositional outlook, but while it can be extraordinarily muscular and materially self-aware, I wouldn’t always describe Finnissy’s music as resilient – it relies too much on expert performers (although there are notable exceptions, This Church being one). And while Weeks’s music is far from easy, I don’t believe its successful realisation depends upon expertise (and specialisation) – a product of a carefully managed, nurturing environment; so much as dedication – a product of desire and time, a very different proposition.

I suggested that a lot of resilient music can be found in the UK – and I would include Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Claudia Molitor and others in this group (what are we more worried about?). Rather than Finnissy, I would suggest Christopher Fox as a wellspring for this particular marriage of practicality and aesthetics. I’m going to write more about Fox’s music in another post soon, but works like Catalogue irraisoné (recorded by Weeks’s EXAUDI vocal ensemble; reviewed here) – indeed the whole of Everything You Need to Know (1999–2001) – or hearing not thinking (2006–8) seem to perfectly describe the conditions of a resilient music. The best of these pieces seem to grow from Cage’s inadvertent manifesto for a post-apocalyptic composition: that one should destroy all of one’s records; only then will one be forced to write music for oneself.