CD review: André O. Möller with Hans Eberhard Maldfeld: in memory of james tenney (Wandelweiser)

André O. Möller with Hans Eberhard Maldfeld: in memory of james tenney

Hans Eberhard Maldfeld and André O. Möller


Is there such a thing as a “Wandelweiser sound”? Perhaps for a while a decade or so ago, but I sense this is becoming increasingly less true. Yes there remain certain familial connections, but these have less to do with specific techniques or even aesthetic preferences, and more to do with more or less shared concerns about the relationship of sound (material) to context. As has been pointed out to me recently, it’s not easy to fit works like Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (2) or White Metal into a stereotype of extreme quiet and long silences.

in memory of james tenney I (one just second) is thirty minutes of tromba marina drones played at the interval of a just second. Really nothing else. I am reminded very much of a comment I once heard that a lot of Wandelweiser is “meditation music for people who don’t like to meditate”. There’s nothing to do with pieces like these, it seems, except sit still and get deep inside the sound. Except that this is a really noisy, raspy kind of sound, that makes one feel really self-conscious as a home listener. Extreme and long, yes, but not quiet, not silent. What is this? What am I doing? Can my neighbours hear this, and do they think I’m mad? Breaking through to the interior of this sound takes a deal more effort than for, say, a Manfred Werder recording. Which may be the point.

But then what do you find when you get there?

Yes, there is lots of harmonic complexity, plenty of beating patterns, that sort of thing to get yourself lost in. The timbre of the tromba marina itself is also highly perforated, so there’s a really grainy rhythm, thousands of micro-pulses, to sink into as well, which you don’t get with, say, sine waves. It’s not necessarily an unpleasant place to be, but it is very different from the Wandelweiser stereotype.

The other pieces on the disc explore a wider range. in memory of james tenney II begins with almost a counterpoint between the two instruments as they shift notes against each other before settling on a particular interval. imojt IV (reprise) is by far the shortest, at just two minutes, a bagatelle of a single lolloping arpeggio pattern. The last piece on the disc, imojt V (when eight is seven), is the most active, a melange of insectoid buzzes, glassy harmonics and thunder-like bass rumbles.

CD review: Andrew McIntosh: Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure

Yarn/Wire; James Sullivan and Brian Walsh, clarinets; Andrew McIntosh, violin

populist records, PR006

This one has been knocking around the car for some months now. The kids love it. “Play the ghost music” they shout from the back, referring to the fourth part of Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure for two pianos and percussion. I see what they mean: it’s an atmospheric little movement of piano harmonics and bowed metallic percussion that resolves into tinkling crotales and high register piano. Totally up my alley.

McIntosh, co-owner/operator of populist, also plays on this Tom Johnson CD I reviewed in 2012, but this disc is, I think, his first as a composer. In its use of just intonation and rhythmic and melodic process, his music fits in the lineage of Johnson, James Tenney, and Marc Sabat. However, it is somewhat less austere than their music can be; there are certainly processes at work throughout this disc, but picking them out when listening is not really the point; the music pulls more towards the sensual and the contrapuntally satisfying.

Hyenas is framed by McIntosh’s eight Symmetry Etudes, divided into two groups, for two clarinets and violin. These are, I suppose, more minimal in conception, and McIntosh’s primary materials of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios (conceived as equivalent to each other, just with different-sized steps) come to the fore. Those materials are often intercut or rearranged to create more complex, less predictable patterns, and may be overlaid in a number of rational tempo relations as well. The range of possibilities arising is large and taken full advantage of by McIntosh, from the melancholy, pastoral fourths of Etude II, to the bubbling exchanges of Etude III, to Etude VI, in which slow, three-note arpeggios, very widely spaced, lead to single notes being passed and sustained amongst the ensemble.

The more diverse instrumentation of Hyenas sets it in a very different soundworld, but its origins are similar: the first movement recalls late Ligeti in its use of overlaid scales that pass at different speeds, and there is a similar sense of uncanny storytelling in the way different instruments are introduced into the mix (in this case moving from piano to wooden percussion to skins) – each new instrument enters like an unexpected animal found deep in the forest. In the second movement, McIntosh is playing once again with scales and different forms of smoothness/gap size. The pianos begin with swift legato runs up and down, but are soon interrupted with the regular, dull chime of a glass water bowl. Unlike the piano notes, its thunks are spaced wide apart in time, but with the twist that they describe a very gradual movement down in pitch (just a fourth over the course of 25 bars) as water is slowly added to the bowl. It’s a great effect, both sonically and intellectually, and McIntosh returns to it in the fourth movement. In between the third movement is a resonant chamber of interlocking pianos and, later on, aluminium tubes. The sheer opulence of the sound here – quite, quite beautiful – is an oceanic indulgence in the context of what elsewhere can be a precise and reserved disc, but it shows McIntosh to be a composer of great aural as well as procedural imagination. Highly recommended.

CD review: Scott Worthington: Prism

Scott Worthington, double bass

populist records, PR008

In spite of its size, the double bass can be quite a delicate instrument. In fact, because of its size: that massive soundbox means it only needs the softest pressure of bow or fingerpad to coax it into sound.

Scott Worthington’s bass is a gentle giant, deep and softly breathing. The four pieces on this CD all occupy a place in which the bass’s natural resonances and sonic nuances (that depth of spectrum!) are allowed to sound. Feldman is an obvious touchstone, but I also hear echoes of, say, Tim Parkinson in the “this thing, and then this thing” way the longer pieces are structured.

The disc’s opener, At Dusk, the longest of them all at 17 minutes, sets a tone against which the other tracks push and pull. The material is simple, consisting mostly of alternating pairs of notes, at different speeds, in different registers, and for different durations. Yet it is arranged in what to the ear could easily be a complex system of interlocking loops, or completely improvised – such is its mix of poise and grace. The piece is scored for double bass and electronics, but unusually the electronics are pushed far back, with just the faintest hints of digital resonance shining through the gaps. Yet for all its reserve and careful elegance, it’s a continually surprising listen as Worthington keeps introducing new harmonic regions and small variations.

Prism, for three double basses, again works on patterns of repetition and alteration. Worthington pushes the fragmentary nature of his work further here – the lines between sections are more heavily marked, the changes more steep, as with the shift from a broken chord pattern spread across the three instruments to asynchronised monotonous pulses that takes place at around four minutes in. Moving in the opposite direction is the more continuous Reflections, written in memory of the legendary Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, who died in 2012. This is again written for double bass and electronics, although in this case a digital looping system that allows many layers of music to be slowly built up. Here is Worthington playing the piece live:

There are echoes of Grisey in that massive drone, and the melodies Worthington builds upon it, but also Lucier as well. I find it an extremely effective piece; I love how the drone shifts from shimmering slow phase sweeps to a metallic, insectoid buzz as new layers are added. Worthington’s roots clearly lie in the experimental tradition, but his music has heart and poetry too.

The CD is completed with two versions of the Quintet (after Feldman) for five basses. This time, fragments and repetitions are replaced by the shifting clouds of five instruments cycling through their own lines at slightly different speeds – an idea indebted to Feldman’s music for multiple pianos of the late 1950s. The piece is short, and just as you get deep into it, it is over – very un-Feldmanlike in that respect – but it makes an ideal immersive complement to the more rarefied longer pieces.

Although it might seem a dry premise – a whole disc of music for variations of a single instrument – Prism shows Worthington to be a composer of subtlety and skill. An earlier disc on populist, Even the Light Itself Falls, is also recommended.

Bryn Harrison: Vessels (Recent releases from another timbre, part 3)

(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)


Bryn Harrison | Vessels | Philip Thomas, piano | another timbre (at69)

Of the current batch of another timbre CDs that I’m reviewing, this one seems the most problematic. I’ve raved about Bryn Harrison’s music in the past, but recently I’ve found myself drifting further and further apart from it. With Vessels, an uninterrupted 76-minute magnum opus for solo piano (written for, and played here in one extraordinarily controlled and immaculately articulated take, by Philip Thomas), I’m afraid I totally lose track of what he’s trying to do.

Or rather, I do see what he’s trying to do, but all too transparently. Harrison has always been adept at providing descriptions for his compositional methods, relaying the particular effects he wants to create in the listener, making connections with psychoacoustics, visual arts and his compositional ancestors. To quote from the personal statement (2009) on his website: “Much of my recent compositional output has been largely concerned with the exploration of musical time through the use of recursive musical forms which challenge our perceptions of time and space by viewing the same material from different angles and perspectives. … Exploring high levels of repetition that draw on the pretext that exact repetition changes nothing in the object itself but does change something in the mind that contemplates it, [more recent] works deal explicitly with aspects of duration and memory; near and exact repetition operate in close proximity throughout and provide points of orientation and disorientation for the listener.”

The problem is that while I can appreciate the concept on an intellectual level, and I respect the integrity with which Harrison has followed it through, the music itself has stopped interesting me. Once one of Harrison’s delicate and, it must be said, attractive mobiles has been set up, it quickly stops presenting any listening challenges. Even Feldman – whose music is on the surface at least closest to Harrison’s in terms of its general aesthetic – threw in sudden changes of gear to keep you on your toes. Listening to Vessels, the only question that I find is why; and that’s the least interesting question of all.

The inspiration is Howard Skempton’s 2007 string quartet, Tendrils, but unlike that piece, whose ‘tonality’ is in a state of constant movement due to its use of continually changing melodic modes, Vessels is trapped in amber. It rotates and catches the light at different angles, but it is static all the same. Skempton holds stasis and movement in delicate tension; Harrison presents stasis in spite of movement. Incidental moments occur: chords, cadences, tiny melodies drift by, side effects of the unfolding process. Always present is the general drift through the same harmonic and registral space. Like tissue floating in water, each moment collapses as soon as you go to touch it. Eventually it becomes too much trouble to try.

Laurence Crane: Chamber Works 1992–2009 (Recent releases from another timbre, part 2)

(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)


Laurence Crane | Chamber Works 1992–2009 | Apartment House | another timbre (at74x2)

For newcomers to the world of experimental music – hovering happily between composition and improvisation, determinism and experiment – to which another timbre dedicates itself, this is the disc I would probably turn people towards first. Although I would do that only on the basis that Laurence Cranes’ musical language is the least forbidding, based as it is on steady, even rhythms, legible, tonal harmonies, simple harmonic progressions (often just alternations of two chords). But, as Michael Pisaro points out in a lovely short essay on the AT website, despite all this Crane’s music is also ‘quietly crazy, even absurd in its extremely understated way.’ It certainly isn’t what it seems. It couldn’t possibly be. You can’t get away with writing music like that, of such surface simplicity as to have practically no surface at all. Yet Crane does; and no one else.

So what is there? I suppose we might each see something different reflected in Crane’s still waters. What I find, first, is absolute precision, coupled with an almost complete absence of redundancy. Clearly there is no ornament in the usual melodic sense, but neither is there any in a more conceptual sense. You actually try to project something clever behind the notes that you hear, those chords alternating in slow footsteps, but the music bends like a reed, absorbing and evading. It’s some of the most yin music I know.

Disc 1 contains nine pieces, mostly from the 1990s, mostly shorter. As well as three versions of Sparling – written for Apartment House’s Andrew Sparling in 1992, and something of a signature Crane piece – we have Trio (1996), Raimondas Rumsas for cello (2002), See Our Lake (1999) for alto flute, clarinets, violin, cello and vibraphone, Riis (1996) for clarinet, cello and electric organ, Bobby J (1999) for electric guitar, and the three pieces of Estonia – Erki Nool, Mart Poom, Arvo Pärt – for flutes, clarinet, violin and cello.* For those who know a little of Crane’s music already, this is the most familiar territory of homorhythmic chords, simple timbres and so on.

Disc 2 contains five pieces, mostly longer, and all from the 2000s: Seven Short Pieces for bass flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2004), Piano Piece no.23 ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ for solo piano (2009), Four Miniatures for flute, violin, percussion and piano (2003), Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani Part 1 for clarinet and auxiliary instruments (2007), and John White in Berlin for cello, electric guitar, percussion and piano (2003). This is the stranger of the two discs. The instrumentation gets a little less conventional, the sounds a little less pure – witness the percussive knocks and violin scratches tucked away in the Seven Short Pieces, or the noise-making and droning auxiliary instruments of John Vigani. The chord progressions get less straightforward. A general air of uncertainty starts to inhabit the music: the instrumental parts seem more exposed, without a solid ensemble homophony or tonal centredness to back them up; there is a greater use of silence, and of dissonance, and of dynamic contrast. It is still just as ungraspable, but now it seems even more bewilderingly so, given the seemingly greater density of musical information.

This is a significant release I believe; I hope it will prove to be. Crane’s strange vision has been lurking around the periphery of new music for a long time, almost like a secret handshake for those in the know. You’ve either heard it and been convinced, or you haven’t heard it. For those of us who have there are still surprises here: the late 90s pieces Riis and Bobby J, for example, have an almost unseemly lushness of sound; Ethiopian Distance Runners unfolds over an unCrane-like 22 minutes. John White in Berlin is something else again; in context quite a shock. While this isn’t exactly music of wild emotions or high contrasts, there is plenty here that reveals Crane as a composer of substantial range. Now that this release is out, here’s hoping it will introduce the impenetrable transparency of his music to a much wider audience.

Don’t forget the launch concert for this CD, on Tuesday 15th July at Cafe Oto.


*Crane has a fondness for naming pieces after people, particularly sportsmen, and among them particularly cyclists. It’s a curious footnote that the three cyclists with pieces named after them here (all of them former Tour de France podium placers) have all, since the composition of their namesake pieces, been implicated in doping scandals. Rumsas, who came third in the 2002 Tour, the same year that Crane named a piece after him, had question marks over him immediately after that race when steroids, growth hormones, testosterone and more were found in his wife’s car on the same day that the race ended. Julich (Bobby J) finished third in the infamous 1998 Tour, a race in which he later confessed to have doped. Bjarne Riis admitted in 2005 to doping between 1993 and 1998, including during his 1996 Tour win – again, the same year as Crane’s piece.

This practice supposedly has little bearing on the meaning of the music itself. In this context it is interesting to note that while one might expect music written for sporting heroes who later fell from grace to carry some unintentional pathos, even this is hard to hear in Crane’s super-blank canvases.

Recent releases from another timbre, part I

Sheffield’s indie new music label another timbre have been on a heck of a burn the last few months, and two more luscious looking discs have recently fallen through the door this week. With the eyes of the sporting world turned on God’s own county thanks to the opening stages of the Tour de France, I figured the time had come to give considered appraisal to some recent releases from this Yorkshire-based label.

The six discs pictured above are, in order of release:

I’m going to give them all a short review over the coming days; keep checking back.

As you can see, apart from the release by Swedish ensemble Skogen they are all single composer portrait discs (and, in the case of the Harrison and Beuger releases, single works too). And in fact, despite its credit line, the Skogen disc is also a sort of composer portrait, being a 56-minute performance of an open-form piece by the group’s founder, Magnus Granberg. (More on this distinction when I come to review the disc itself.)

However, don’t get the impression from this that composer portraits are exclusively what another timbre do. In some ways this is quite a selective cross-section of their recent catalogue, much more of which deals in performer-led experimental and improvised work. Indeed the same might be said here too: the thing I enjoy first whenever I encounter anything released on AT is recognising the connections – not of aesthetics as such, but of values and sensibilities – between the different musicians represented, and tracing those connections back through the network of composers and performers for whom these musical relationships are the same as their personal ones.

Some of that is just to do with geography: many of the musicians featured on the discs above are based in Yorkshire, AT’s territory (as has been observed, the north of England is sometimes better served for new music than the south). London and Berlin are also important centres. But there’s something else too, a fluid, 21st-century approach to experimental music-making that isn’t hung up about composer/performer authority, that doesn’t recognise ideological lines between free improvisation, open notation (whether text or graphics), or a fully notated score. It’s not even a self-consciously radical approach to boundary breaking. Those boundaries simply no longer exist: Bryn Harrison’s precisely determined notation exists on the same plane as John Cage’s Cartridge Music or some archived improvisations by Hugh Davies. It’s just, shrug, what are we playing today?

Which should not give the impression that anything here is done with less than 100% attention and sincerity. In nearly every case these are exactly the musicians you would want to make the benchmark recordings of these pieces; very often they have worked closely with the composers over extended periods, as is certainly the case with Philip Thomas’s recording of Vessels, an epic 75-minute solo composed for him by his Huddersfield colleague Harrison. It’s also true of Apartment House’s 2-CD set of Laurence Crane’s chamber music; composer and ensemble have been collaborators for years, and this was a project born out of an immense store of mutual respect and affection (half seriously, Anton Lukoszevieze tells me he’s been waiting for this album for 20 years). Over the next few posts I’ll be digging deeper into these treasurable recordings.


CD re-review: Lars Petter Hagen: Orchestral Music


Lars Petter Hagen: Orchestral Music | Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Rolf Gupta. Gjermund Larsen, Hardanger fiddle | Aurora

I reviewed this disc not that long ago for Nutida Musik, but I feel like it deserves a second pass here. Mostly that is because of its first piece, Norwegian Archives, which I’ve listened to several times now since submitting my review and which, although I don’t think I scored it badly, I certainly hadn’t fully worked out at the time.

As well as a composer Lars Petter Hagen is also a festival director (of Ultima, and others before that), and therefore a prominent and influential voice in contemporary Norwegian music. Much of his recent music is concerned with memory, nostalgia, and the troubling nature of cultural nationalism. Several pieces on this disc make allusions to Grieg in particular, but there are also less concrete elements like airy harmonies that live towards the top end of the harmonic spectrum, and allusions to nature and rural innocence. All three come together in the quintessentially Norwegian sound of the Hardanger fiddle, a folk instrument with sympathetic resonating strings, for which Hagen’s To Zeitblom is a concerto.

All of this comes out of the sounds of Norwegian Archives; icy chords, ringing harmonics, calm waters. But they are nudged out of shape by buzzing, tinnitus-like irritations, echoes and reverberations, and sliding glissandi. These are almost the physiology of recollection made sound. The notes generally come only one at a time. The continuity, the narrative, on which ideology feeds, is completely broken. Hagen uses the tactic to some extent on all the pieces on this recording – The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, Tveitt-Fragments, Funeral March Over Edvard Grieg, To Zeitblom – but it appears to the greatest extent in this piece. Any story-making must take place internally, in the critical intellect of the listener. Neither is the orchestra used as a machine for creating continuity, but instead is a repository for timbres, wispy allusions. Its forces are hardly employed en masse, and even then only for a second or so at a time. For the rest, we get a sort of desiccated Mahler of duets and chamber groupings, fleeting and remote.

I’m not saying it isn’t a problematic piece; Hagen’s music has been the site of a certain amount of controversy in Norway. But that’s the nature of nostalgia and nostalgia critique: it can be hard to tell the two apart, particularly within music, in which the same object can stand in equally for both. But I have grown increasingly to admire it – admittedly as an outsider to Norwegian music – and I have a lot of time for the narrow path Hagen is trying to tread.