CD Review: Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum

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Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum | Hákon Stene, percussion | Ahornfelder AH25

I now own at least three recordings of Silver Street Car for the Orchestra, which is surely enough.

My latest copy of Alvin Lucier’s famous solo for triangle, on this fine recital disc by Håkon Stene, is the shortest of the three and, being recorded in a very resonant acoustic – the glorious Tomba Emmanuelle in Oslo – is very different from the other two. (The others are by Brian Johnson on the Ever Present disc, and Ross Parfitt, recorded at Tate Modern.) Do I like it? It’s certainly more immediately attractive than the other, drier, versions; there’s more to listen to, in a straightforward sense, as the overtones swing round the room’s 20-second reverberation. The sound blooms extravagantly (it roars). I wasn’t sure at first so had to ask – Stene assures me it is just him, the triangle and the room, although all four corners of the space were miked so as to make the most of the ambience. It must have been quite something to hear in person.

I’m in two minds about how faithful it is to what I take to be Lucier’s concept though – the minute, phasing variations you get from a typical performance of SSC are both blown up and swamped by the acoustic. The scale on which things take place is completely altered. That said, a lot of the original nuance doesn’t transmit well to recording anyway. At the very least Stene should be credited for experimenting with a solution, and the results are pretty stunning.

Stene also uses the Tomba Emmanuelle for his recording of Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (1). Even more than the Lucier, the acoustic distorts (saying that as neutrally as possible) one’s expectation of what a Michael Pisaro piece is going to sound like. Here there is a little more mediation involved. Each separate part of Pisaro’s score (which involves dropping rice onto different surfaces) was recorded separately, then played back in separate channels into the room. I think the tracks themselves were also recorded in the Tomba, so you have reverb on reverb. It gets a lot louder than any Pisaro piece I know, a consequence of the sheer volume of rice Stene appears to be using. Bits remind me of some of those early Xenakis tape pieces – Concret PH or Bohor come to mind.

I’m only recently getting acquainted with Marko Ciciliani‘s music and I’m still searching for a frame within which to get to grips with it. I’ll confess that Black Horizons has me baffled. It is written for two table-top guitars (Stene is supported here by Ciciliani himself), which rarely play settled pitches, almost always drifting queasily up or down after each attack. There’s a steady, pulsing strum throughout most of the piece, over which are laid sharper attacks, slowly drifting glissandi, and, going beyond the guitars themselves, short spoken word samples and other noise sources. There’s certainly something improvisatory – at least in feel – here, although I miss a sense of inter-performer focus. I guess it’s a little, well, rambling, and I haven’t yet made out a formal design, or a binding concept. Which isn’t to say there isn’t one or the other; just that it remains opaque to me.

But the key to this record are the Studies in Self-Imposed Tristesse by Lars Petter Hagen, three of which are distributed throughout the album. The ‘study’ of the title may refer to some sort of conceptual restriction, but these are also studies in a musical sense, in the varying qualities of attack and sustain of different sound sources, whether bells, sine tones, radio static, bowed vibes and so on. All of those are sounds that bring them into contact with the other three tracks on the disc. (Indeed it’s easy to miss the cuts between the Ciciliani piece and the studies before and after it.) The studies are based on preparatory fragments of a larger work for strings by the mid-century nationalist composer Geir Tveitt (1908–81), part of the small amount of work recovered from a house fire in 1970 that destroyed nearly all of his music. Know that about their history, and suddenly this album’s emotional and symbolic terrain draws together.

–––––

Also out now is a CD single (Ahornfelder AH26) that pairs Stene’s thumping reading of Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet with a remix by Sir Duperman (Jørgen Træen). Opting not to force Ferneyhough’s rhythms into a beats-heavy IDM straitjacket, Træen goes for something more freeform, making the most of Ferneyhough’s rigidly stratified percussion timbres to squeeze his material into a mix of dubby squelches and pops-and-sine tone Stockhausen. By about midway, the source sounds have passed from recognition, returning only towards the end.

I reviewed Stene live, back in 2008, playing the Ferneyhough and Hagan pieces as one half of the asamisamasa duo. See bottom half of the page here.

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