Some recent writings

Last autumn, I was fortunate to be asked – separately, but serendipitously – to write essays on five of my favourite artists: Apartment House, Chaya Czernowin, Evan Johnson, Liza Lim and Timothy McCormack,. Although I enjoy most writing, it’s rare to be able to take such pleasure from it, and over such a sustained period – eight weeks through September and October in this case. It was a wonderful time. With the release this week of McCormack’s debut CD (on KAIROS), the events and CDs for which I wrote those essays have finally all come to fruition. I’m moved therefore to share a little extract from each here. I particularly like the fact that I have written about some of these musicians for a decade now: having them all together engendered a profound sense of ‘what next?’, but also felt like a victory.

The three liner notes below accompany CDs that I believe are among the essential releases of the last few months, and I recommend them to you as highly as I can.

A mountain’, wrote the Scottish novelist and naturist Nan Shepherd (1893–1981), ‘has an inside’. Like Shepherd’s ‘living mountain’, McCormack’s music also has an inside. To be in a landscape is to be part of it, to participate in its creation, evolution and destruction. We do not observe, we do not consume, we do not utilise, we do not inhabit or farm or pollute landscapes passively. They enter us as we enter them. For karst survey McCormack told the flutist Zach Sheets, ‘I really wanted to put the listener on the ground walking through it and not understanding the connections between its features. … I wanted to put the listener really in the middle of this landscape, and you’re only seeing what you’re able to see – you don’t see how the whole thing connects until you’ve walked through it all.’

From sleevenotes to Timothy McCormack, KARST, karst survey, and you actually are evaporating, released by KAIROS.

In the final movement of [Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus] is a remarkable sound, based on a real phenomenon: the ‘dawn chorus’ of coral reef fish that takes place in the changing light of morning; a mass of clicking, rasping percussive sounds, transcribed by Lim through the sound of Waldteufels and windwands being swirled in the air. As the music passes theoretically below the range of human hearing (thanks to a contrabassoon that has been extended with a metre of plastic tubing), we end listening to a song that we can no longer know nor understand, looking to a future perhaps no longer meant for us.

From sleevenotes to Liza Lim, Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, released by KAIROS.

A hyphen sits between. A hyphen is small. Its use implies the presence of two more substantial items – words, or parts of words – on either side, which give it its function and meaning. Those words constitute a sort of white or negative space, whose presence and influence can be inferred even if the words themselves are not spoken. It is an image articulated spectacularly in a favourite artwork of Johnson’s, the pen and ink drawing Der Hafen von Antwerpen beim Scheldetor (1520) by Albrecht Dürer. Dürer’s picture inverts the normal rules of Renaissance perspective by becoming more detailed the closer one gets to its vanishing point. At its centre, where the outlines of buildings and ships collide, it reaches a state of almost self-negating intricacy, the profusion of lines leading to less, not more, definition. But outwards from this point the picture tends towards white space, and indeed more than half of the page is completely white, including the large expanse of dockside pavement on which were are standing. Johnson’s music can be understood in large part in response to this picture – and it directly inspired his 2014 string quartet inscribed, in the center: ‘1520, Antorff’. The works on the present recording, written before this quartet, reflect alternative responses to the dialectic of compression and emptiness revealed by Dürer.

From sleevenotes to Evan Johnson portrait disc, also on KAIROS.

Despite a continual swinging between opposites – from art gallery to concert hall, from detailed notation to allusive text, from the heart of Europe to the fringes of New York, from the cutting edge to the historical – Apartment House have created an artistic identity that transcends those differences . . . In part that identity is guided by Lukoszevieze’s own tastes, contacts and performance opportunities. He has described a word of mouth aspect to the group’s artistic direction that is driven by enthusiasms and personal relationships rather than publishers’ catalogues or occasion-related prestige. The group’s direction is also driven by Lukoszevieze’s own reading of musical history (shared with Cage), not as a straight line going in one direction, but as a series of rivers, and Lukoszevieze delights in discovering or reviving works and composers – particularly from the 1960s and 70s – that have left only the faintest traces on history. Not even the early experimental or minimalist works that might be referenced in textbooks of the time, but those that were published only in small-run magazines, or were performed only once, or that for any other reason might have slipped beneath the floorboards of history.

In a musical world in which fragility and precariousness are countered by institutionalisation and formality, Apartment House have made flexibility into a virtue. The group’s name alludes to Cage’s Apartment House 1776, but more significantly to the idea of different rooms within a single building: rooms with different functions, rooms on different levels, rooms close or far apart, some rooms with people in, some that are empty.

From programme essay on Apartment House, for Rainy Days Festival, Luxembourg.

Falling in love is a huge risk. To share your life and your self with someone is to risk pain and suffering – and in extreme circumstances even torture and death. This is very rare, of course, although movements like #MeToo have made us all more aware of the amount of physical abuse that does take place. And even in a kind and caring relationship in which each partner is able to grow, to love is to lose something – other lives, other loves. It means giving up our autonomy and independence in order to become part of something larger. It is an opening up that is both physical and psychological. In Czernowin’s words: ‘In all this process of falling in love or opening your life to somebody else there are so many emotions, and they are all very focused, all very concentrated. It is almost like the whole body – and the whole body of the personality – know that they are going to undergo a huge change. And that change is described to us by society as something so idyllic: not many people talk about the risk, of opening an organism into another organism.’ Insofar as it tells a story – or describes a series of scenes – Heart Chamber does so in ways that engage us listeners aesthetically, psychologically and physically. As far as is possible, we are drawn into the same adventure into the unknown as the lovers themselves.

From programme essay, Chaya Czernowin, Heart Chamber, Berlin Opera. (Full text here.)

Playlists for the Long Distancing 6

Playlists for the Long Distancing 6

I’ve been meaning to put this one together for a long time, and now the time felt unavoidable. This weekend’s listening is an ordered collection of Anthony Braxton’s numbered compositions as far as I can find them on Spotify, from 1 to 377 (and counting).

I know close to nothing about Braxton’s music, and its sheer quantity and diversity is extremely daunting to a relative newcomer like me. It is rather like approaching Bach, or Merzbow, for the first time. But a journey of a thousand miles and all that …

Some notes. First, this list includes only those numbered compositions which are identified as such on Spotify. I found quite a few other pieces by Braxton, but identified/titled in other ways. I am nowhere near qualified to know if or where these should go in the list.

Second, quite a few of these recordings feature more than one work at once (using the collage or ‘constructor set’ approach that Braxton adopted in the late 1970s, in which more than one composition could be performed simultaneously). I’ve placed these in the list according to whichever work number is mentioned first on the track title.

Third, some of these pieces are available in more than one recording/performance. Where those versions are very similar (for a subjective value of ‘similar’) I’ve chosen just one recording. Where they are significantly different, I’ve included both.

Finally, this is a massive playlist – over 71 hours of music. (It dwarfs even my complete Cage list.) You will need much more than just one weekend to listen to it all. And even more Braxton may be purchased on the New Braxton House Bandcamp page.

Restarting, tentatively

Slowly, live music, in front of live audiences, is beginning to return. In Denmark, critic Andrew Mellor jubilantly announced two weeks ago his first post-lockdown concert, and last night he watched the Royal Danish Opera give its first concert with orchestra, chorus and audience in three months.

Perhaps inevitably, given the stakes, the event itself was a slight letdown. Mellor reports on ‘Business Class conditions’ in the auditorium, with alternate seats sealed off, but a lightweight programme and an (understandably) uncertain atmosphere:

It was a privilege to be here, with better sightlines and more elbow room than ever (and easy, too, in a spacious modern opera house where social distancing in the foyers was a habit long before Covid). But the event itself felt strangely disorientating: was it a celebration? Was it a commemoration? Was it a hesitant emergence or a triumphant return?

This is something we will all need to guard against in ways both big and small: so long-imagined, unlocking lockdown is bound to disappoint. There will be no Covid-VE Day, no street parties. Just lots of gradual, individual adjustments. Mellor is right to observe the difficulty of accurately finding meaning in events during lockdown’s long tail, after meaning seemed to flow abundantly from every action during lockdown itself. After clarity, drift?

Nevertheless, it is exciting to see such events beginning to return. And context will always affect how we hear music. For those keen to seek out that new semantic territory through new music, from next Monday (15 June), Ensemble Musikfabrik will begin performing socially distanced ‘concert miniatures’ to tiny audiences of twelve at a time twice a day (17:30 and 19:00) on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the summer.

Full details (including booking details and hygiene protocol) may be found on the Musikfabrik website. The programme for the first concerts will be:

Mikel UrquizaAlfabet (2018–19) for soprano, trumpet, clarinet and percussion 

Steffen KrebberAmphiference (2019) for drumset, minimoog and two loudspeakers

Karlheinz Stockhausen: KONTAKTE (1958-1960) for piano, percussion and tape 

Performers:

Sarah Maria Sun, soprano
Marco Blaauw, trumpet
Carl Rosman, clarinet
Dirk Rothbrust, percussion
Benjamin Kobler, piano
Ulrich Löffler, minimoog
Kathinka Pasveer, sound direction (Stockhausen)
Steffen Krebber, sound direction (Krebber)

As countries ease out of lockdown at different times and with different Covid legacies, many different approaches to live music will emerge. As Mellor reports, Scandinavian countries have been able to maintain quite a lot of live music: last week the Iceland Symphony Orchestra played to a live audience with little social distancing; orchestras have played in Norway and Finland; and in Sweden they hardly stopped at all. Such events seem some way off for the UK, but we will be looking on with envy and interest.

John McGuire’s dynamic stases

In light of my post some days ago on altered times and altered spaces, it feels appropriate to be listening to the music of John McGuire right now. I’m doing so in a work context, but the dynamic stasis that McGuire creates in, for example, his Pulse Music III seems to speak, obliquely, to our current moment.

McQuire is a fringe figure in American minimalism (although I hope the project I am currently writing for will move him a little closer to the centre). He’s the sort of composer who gets mentioned in lists of great, overlooked minimalists (Kyle Gann offers one such list in his overview essay in The Ashgate Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music), but is rarely encountered elsewhere. Perhaps the fact that he studied in Germany and the Netherlands (with Stockhausen, Penderecki and Koenig) plays some part in this. He learnt a lot from serialism, but found a way to realise its concerns with continuity and discontinuity, parametrism and pulse, and the spatiality of time within a minimalist aesthetic. The relation of his pulse compositions to Gruppen (a comparison the composer himself makes) reminds me of the relationship of Music for 18 Musicians to John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass: a pixellated abstraction that reveals a new or hidden world beneath.

The dialogue between discrete units and extended continuities, which in turn creates a multi-dimensional musical space, leads me, not for the first time in recent weeks, to Bergson’s concept of durée. I haven’t yet read Bergson, although Time and Free Will is now on my reading pile. I simply leave this here as a thought. Under lockdown – a succession of days relatively undistinguished from one another – the quantitative and qualitative aspects of time, central to Bergson’s theory, have begun to blur into one another. It’s an experience anticipated, it seems to me, in McGuire’s hypnotically beautiful constructions of algorithmically controlled pulse streams.

There was a performance of McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos at Music We’d Like to Hear in 2017, a concert I now regret not attending. You can hear that piece (though not that performance) here:

Alinéa Ensemble – festival launch and trailer

Last week I spoke to the members of Alinéa Ensemble (Tyler Bouque, Robbie Bui, Emma Burge, Alex Garde and Matthew Henson) as part of their forthcoming online festival, Everything But the Kitchen Sink, which will be running throughout summer. We chatted about lockdown, listening, composer interviews and general new music stuff. It was great fun, in spite of my internet connection behaving at its absolute worst throughout. (Thank you for your patience, guys!) There is a trailer (my first!) here:

Everything But the Kitchen Sink will appear as weekly episodes, starting this Friday. My episode is first, but once you’re over that hump you can look forward to work and words from an incredible line-up: Chaya Czernowin, Marcos Balter, Rebecca Saunders, Hans Thomalla, Aaron Cassidy, Du Yun, Ashley Fure, Michael Finnissy (featuring a virtual premiere), Liza Lim, Evan Johnson, Beat Furrer, Ming Tsao, Richard Barrett (featuring a virtual premiere), George Benjamin, Georges Aperghis, and Cat Lamb.

 

One new horizon

This afternoon I had my first post-hospital virtual clinic. Normally this would have happened on the ward, a few weeks after discharge. But Covid-19 temporarily shuttered the CF clinic at my hospital, the Royal Brompton and Harefield, and all but the most essential contacts were put on hold as the Brompton became one of the elite frontlines in the fight against coronavirus.

All in all, the experience was a good one: a clinic visit that would normally have taken a couple of hours, plus the same again in travel, was all done and dusted in around 20 minutes. Almost as soon as it was over, the hospital pharmacy called to confirm my prescriptions: these would arrive in the post in the next couple of days. The cherry on the cake – no long wait at pharmacy either! Here’s hoping that innovations like this, which were being researched but have have been fast-tracked by the pandemic, can become part of standard clinical care, not only for CF but other chronic conditions too.

But the really big news was that my doctor said I could go out once more. Not to the shops, or to travel, or to work; just into the open air. I have to take every precaution, and I must stress that this advice should not be interpreted as wider guidance for anyone else on the vulnerable list; everyone’s case will be different. But in my doctor’s judgement the risk is negligible in an open space, and the benefits to my well-being far outweigh that. In fact, she said, I should go out.

I had asked in hope, much more than expectation, and I had asked for an honest answer, laying the ground for a no, even wishing for one. Part of me didn’t want to know it was OK. At home I’m safe, and there’s no risk assessment to make. Having the option to go out again would require decisions, would complicate things.

But instead the answer I got was, ‘Go outside. Get some vitamin D. See the sky.’ Of course, I need to be careful. I should go somewhere open, away from people. Don’t talk to anyone, stay more than 2 metres away from people. Wear a mask if I have to go past a group of people. Get a T-shirt, suggested my sister-in-law, with the words ‘Stay the Fuck Back’.

I’m going to walk down to the Thames, I reason, along the path to the Barrier. I’ll go early in the morning. The day before, Liz can do a dry run to see what conditions are like, I suggest, saying everything I can to show I am treating this unexpected possibility with appropriate care. The main areas of concern will be the junction at the end of our road, by the station; and crossing the Woolwich Road.

When I’d finished the video call I hung up and took a breath. I went upstairs to Liz and, half-whispering, as though it was too fragile to be spoken out loud, I told her the news. As she hugged me, tears welled up. I hadn’t expected such a strong reaction in myself. I’ve been handling lockdown pretty well, I think, but I realised I had been bottling up more than I knew. Something rushed in, the taste of a different air, a coolness, a memory, and it all caught up with me. Quickly we made plans. I hedged at first, tried to avoid this new reality. But we soon started dreaming of a day – not long away – when my family could show me all the secret places they have been visiting these last few weeks.

For now, I’m just taking one walk, on my own, down to our grubby, unloved stretch of river, with its weeds, its disused piers and its dusty scrap metal yards. It will probably blow my mind.

Music We’d Like to Hear + Another Timbre 150 + Apartment House at 25

Last month, the music series Music We’d Like to Hear was due to hold a concert in celebration of two other great institutions of the UK experimental music scene: the ensemble Apartment House, celebrating its 25th anniversary, and record label Another Timbre, celebrating its 150th release.

Of course, that concert couldn’t take place. But in its stead, the curators at Music We’d Like to Hear have produced a two-and-a-half-hour podcast, offered for sale through Bandcamp, to raise funds for the musicians affected. The podcast is available for download by voluntary donation, and all proceeds will go directly to the musicians who were supposed to have played at the April concert.

Presented by Mira Benjamin, violinist with Apartment House, and Tim Parkinson, co-curator of Music We’d Like to Hear, the podcast features a playlist of works curated by Apartment House’s founder Anton Lukoszevieze and Another Timbre’s Simon Reynell. Included are alternate takes of pieces from Another Timbre’s catalogue and rarities from Apartment House’s recorded archive by Morton Feldman, Ryoko Akama, Christopher Fox, Luiz Henrique Yudo, Louise Bourgeois, and more. There are also interviews with Lukoszevieze and Reynell: both men are some of the most thoughtful and committed actors in British new music, and their thoughts on sound, performance, recording and music are well worth hearing. Purchase the whole collection through Bandcamp here.

In addition to this, Another Timbre has produced a pair of playlists – again downloadable through Bandcamp – compiled to raise funds for musicians affected by the Covid-19 crisis. The first is a five-hour compilation of tracks from Another Timbre’s back catalogue, compiled to raise fund for musicians who have played for the label; the second is a one-hour mixtape, produced to raise funds for London’s leading experimental music venue, Café Oto.

Altered Space in Altered Times

The lockdown is doing strange things to time. Time in lockdown is moving both faster and slower; boredom is simultaneous with an inability to keep track, to keep on top of, to keep up with. More time has meant less time. The time for what one used to do has been taken up by what one ought to be doing: reading more, making bread, learning new skills. New shoulds for old shoulds. Yet friends report that they find it harder than ever to concentrate, to hold on to threads. It can take weeks to reply to an email. I’m forgetful over drug doses, much more than usual.

Less acknowledged, it is doing strange things to space too. Confined to my house for two months now, I crave landscapes and architecture. Rock formations, walking between buildings, horizons, enclosures, passages and transitions, arrangements of things.

I think about other spaces I know well – the walk to my son’s school, my studio, the river, a familiar beach, a woodland, London Bridge – and my skin tingles erotically with the feeling of different walks, the airs of other rooms.

Another landscape: on Friday a friend held a birthday party, DJing in his garden for about 30 people. A glimpse, electronically mediated and Zoom-chambered, but I drank it in. My friend and his wife dancing in their garden; a space I know; watching and listening to them in it, now, at the same time as everyone else on that 5×5 grid of screens; people dispersed in space but together in time; a landscape, flattened.

I’ve found myself listening more structurally to music in recent weeks. I wonder if this comes from the same longing for landscapes? Musical space substituting for actual space? Or is it an illusion? Lockdown has burdened everything with significance, saturated the world with too much meaning. As our experiences – day by day, person to person – start to lose definition, so every difference starts to stand out. I appreciate the spaces of my home more than ever, but I am also exhausted by them. Perhaps this is why I’m hearing things with greater clarity and force: everything is foreground now.

Playlists for the Long Distancing 4

This weekend’s listening is one, all-new playlist. It’s related to a recurring fascination of mine – one that has been growing in recent months – of contemporary composers’ attraction to the music of Schubert. There will hopefully be a much larger project to come out of this one day, but for now I’ll just observe that composers’ responses to Schubert appear to be very different, and very much more personal, than they are with regard to – say – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or any other classic whose works are regularly mined for material and inspiration. I’m very taken with remarks made by one composer on Facebook some years ago, about Schubert’s perfect ear for register; likewise Richard Barrett’s observation (see my forthcoming article in Tempo) of the ability Schubert’s music has to evoke a particular aesthetic in a very short time (perhaps related to the comment about register and voicing); and of course Feldman’s beautiful lament about ‘Schubert leaving me’.

The list contains perhaps less familiar Schubert-related works by composers from Alwynne Pritchard to Edison Denisov (whose completion of Schubert’s Lazarus is not featured here), as well as well-known examples by Zender, Berio and Bernhard Lang. I’ve made some attempt at sequencing, and many of the longer works are represented by single movements to help keep the length down; it’s still three hours long, but the original was nearly seven. That said, I am always on the lookout for works to add to my collection – I’m sure it is nowhere near complete! Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.