No Charles Villiers, please, we’re modernists: two Stanford CDs reviewed

541, volume 4

innova 733

Innova’s fourth annual survey of graduate composition at Stanford showcases music by Alexander Sigman, Sebastian Semper, Juan Cristóbal Cerrillo, Mauricio Rodríguez, Patricia Elizabeth Martínez and Kristian Ireland. Yes, these are essentially student pieces, and yes the recording quality isn’t absolutely professional standard – but these are some sharp compositional minds, and the performers include the legendary Ensemble SurPlus, so attention is demanded. The best pieces (and hence names to keep an eye on) are probably Sigman’s reflets/réflexions/implosions, a fragmentary, prickly stream of consciousness for alto sax, and Cerrillo’s siempre otra cosa (estación violenta), which has an unusually episodic/dramatic shape that is both surprising and rewarding. Ireland’s string quartet, clearing (I), is also pretty intense.

Mark Applebaum: The Metaphysics of Notation

innova 787

While we’re on the subject of Stanford, innova have also released a fantastic DVD documenting Mark Applebaum’s  monster graphic score/installation The Metaphysics of Notation.

Metaphysics comprises a hand-drawn graphic score, drawn across twelve 6-foot paper panels, and two hanging mobiles. It was displayed for a year at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, and during that time received 45 performances from ensembles and individual musicians (including So Percussion, Graeme Jennings, Ken Ueno, Beta Collide and Applebaum’s Stanford colleague Brian Ferneyhough).

Sensibly, innova and Applebaum have opted not to preserve one or two complete performances on this disc, but have instead gone for the more creative solution of a ‘Metaphysics Mix’, comprised of 1-minute excerpts from each of the 45 performances, each of which is accompanied by appropriate photos. It’s not a complete performance of the score, but it is a pretty decent condensation of the year-long installation (which seems to me closer to the spirit of the thing than any one performance could be). In addition, the DVD includes two scrolling animations of the score (one slow, one fast). This is hypnotically beautiful and in these animations you really do sense the possibility of a visual music.

The whole, excellent package is rounded off with a 20-minute documentary on Applebaum and the piece that includes perceptive and provocative input from several prominent musicians and musicologists. A highly recommendable record of a major project in graphic notation.


Innova round-up 2: Performer showcases

The first post in this series on innova’s recent output threw up some interesting comments on the way that releases on innova (and many other labels like them) are funded. That is, through up-front payments by the artists releasing the recording. That in turn opens up a debate on the role of editorial control on the part of the label, but it’s not one that I’m going to enter into just yet.

Instead, having covered some of the recent single-composer releases on innova, I’d like to look at some of the performer showcases. I’m speculating here, but I imagine that different motivations lie behind a group proposing an album to innova than a composer. For the composer the main benefit of commercial release (beyond the usual) may be prestige: an all-important line on a CV. For a group it is genuinely a chance to have their voice heard, create some buzz and perhaps win some gigs or a future recording opportunity. Does the actual content of the recording matter more in that case?

Beta Collide are a flute/trumpet/piano/percussion quartet who play works by Rzewski, Erickson, Kyr, Silvestrov and Vitiello, as well as an arrangement of Ligeti (Mysteries of the Macabre) and an arrangement/remix of Radiohead’s ‘Nude’. Zeitgeist are a percussion, wind and piano quartet who sandwich Ivo Medek in between works by Anthony Gatto, Jerome Kitzke, Kathy Jackanich and Ethan Wickman. Likewise, saxophonist Timothy McAllister programmes Philippe Hurel alongside North Americans like Daniel Asia and Caleb Burhans.

From a European perspective, there’s quirky fun to be had spotting the continental names that make it onto innova CDs, even more in guessing what process got them there. There’s no sense of canon-formation or conventional stylistic allegiance, at least: what connections there are transcend the usual academic box-making.

McAllister is a good player, but his repertory choices on Glint are too samey: passages in the pieces by Wanamaker and Etezady not only sound like each other, they both reminded me of the same third piece (a short thing by Wim Mertens called Songes; too small to have been an influence, but a distracting association nevertheless). Many of the pieces deal in running semiquavers and a generally polite tone. Although he is billed as a spectralist pioneer, Hurel’s music lacks the aesthetic and political radicalism of Dufourt, Grisey or Murail; however, Opcit stretches this album’s horizon with overtones, keyslaps and a form that disintegrates unexpectedly in its centre. The piece still has its limitations, but it is intriguing to hear the continuities of a work like this, which claims its ancestry in the European avant garde, alongside the more conservative works by the American composers represented here.

Several of the tracks on Zeitgeist’s album In Bone-Coloured Light strike a post-minimal balance between the fragile and non-self-absorbed, and Andriessen-like assertiveness. Personally I prefer the former – it’s 2010: it’s more daring and more interesting not to imitate rock bands (I have the same reaction to Zack Browning’s Venus Notorious, a single-composer collection of “high-energy rock-inspired music”) – but there’s plenty of strangeness too, especially in Medek’s Into the Same River. Hints here of an emerging post-post-minimalism, one that critiques the brash amplification and driving rhythms of the 1990s and early 2000s? The title piece by Jerome Kitzke takes another line, unrolling long, romantic melodies that support a subtly gradated transformation of instrumentation and arrangement.

Beta Collide’s psst … psst! is probably the most interesting collection, though. Most of the tracks are curious objects. And I mean objects rather than pieces of music: they seem to sit somehow apart from their surroundings (I often find this with Rzewski’s music, and Christopher Fox has a similar knack). That’s partly the playing, which, especially in the duet of Rzewski’s Nanosonata no.7 and Mollitude, is almost supernaturally crisp (flautist Molly Barth is formerly of eighth blackbird, and brings their discipline to her direction). And the Radiohead remix? It’s more of a new music karaoke arrangement, with acoustic instruments playing along with Thom Yorke’s voice, but it has its own uncanniness and is definitely one to surprise any ‘head fans among your friends. Here’s a promo video of Beta Collide performing their arrangement of Mysteries of the Macabre:

And, lastly, something of a performer/composer crossover: Panauromni by Psychoangelo. Psychoangelo are the trumpet, computer, guitar and small objects duo of Glen Whitehead and Michael Theodore, both professors at University of Colorado, Boulder. The music is rich in electronically generated noise:  occasional trumpet notes are exploded into hazes of sound, as if Miles Davis had really pushed the sonic experiment of Bitches Brew into the purely spectral-sensual erasure of his instrument. A gorgeous, affecting and not at all academic record that nevertheless rewards close attention.

The final part of this extended review will look at some of innova’s recently released archival collections and summarise what I – as an outsider who encounters this whole musical world almost exclusively through his letterbox – makes of it all.

Anti-austerity: an innova records round-up

Pre-preamble (13 January 2011)

Since writing this post, innova have produced a neat publicity video that kindly uses some of its words. Check it out, pass it on:


As I look at this pile of CDs, I can’t help thinking that even in these times of austerity and recession, at least one sector of the American creative industries can’t be doing too badly, if productivity and diversity are anything to go by.

The above picture is of the review CDs I’ve been sent recently from innova records. I’ve reviewed innova releases many times in the past, and I’ve often enjoyed what they do. Most of the names and music they promote are virtually unknown in the UK, so it’s difficult to filter before listening; and there are often unexpected discoveries to be made. Faced with the reviewing challenge above, however, I’m going to have to take a different approach. Rather than discuss CDs one by one, I’d like to take the opportunity presented by all this new music to take the pulse of off-the-radar American music. Please forgive me if I skip over anything in the posts that follow (this is the first in a series of at least three); there’s so much here that it’s impossible for one person’s taste to address all of it properly.

The record label as living archive: single composer releases

Innova, it seems to me, do two things exceptionally well. One is to source and promote innovative, unusual and sometimes nutty musicians who fall through the cracks of the standardised, genre-obsessed music business: whether they be Pat Muchmore or John Morton.

The other is to produce a recorded archive of American music, a sort of counterpart to New World’s Recorded Anthology of American Music, but going to places even further from the commercial mainstream. The Enclosures series of Harry Partch recordings and films is a notable example, but this work continues in the Music from Stanford series (now in four volumes) and individual releases like Ultra Violette, an overview of the music of Andrew Violette. This latter is a typically well-documented example: two CDs of music, the second an enhanced CD-ROM with notes, biographies and bonus MP3s.

The two realms overlap, of course: documenting new music as it happens is a sort of archiving-in-advance. (Innova’s compilation and archiving of the past will be covered in a future post.) This raises certain issues: the impulse to put on record anything that might be of future interest is attracted to novelty as much as it is to quality. Occasional innova releases make me question how much emphasis is placed on the latter over the former: MC Maguire’s Trash of Civilisations, for example, is notable for its exhilarating, hyper-realistic density of intertextual samples, which are used within rigorously composed structures, but overall I found it one-dimensional and ideologically jarring.

One aspect of this ouput are the CDs dedicated to single composers. They range from the lyrical romanticism of Judith Shatin to the electroacoustic and microtonal journeys of Jeremy Haladyna’s Mayan Cycle to the straight-up modernism of Ushio Torikai.

Torikai has been on the European and North American concert music scene since the late 1970s, and her output includes commissions from Ensemble Modern and the Kronos Quartet. Rest (innova 722) is more ‘modern classical’ than most innova releases, and the results wouldn’t sound out of place on a European label like Kairos or Métier.  Nevertheless, the music is hampered by an over-cautious approach that limits the range of Torikai’s own compositional voice. She clearly admires much in the postwar music of Babbitt, Berio and Boulez, but – and this is especially true of music written 50 years after their first great experiments – it’s frustrating to hear that influence as a formulaic style and not as an invitation to adventure.

Somewhere between the ‘anecdotal music’ of Luc Ferrari and the ‘Mouseketier’ of Mark Applebaum sits Christopher Campbell’s Sound the All Clear: a music of strings and pinging metal tines, presented with an almost documentary vividness. There’s something very ‘uncomposed’ in feeling here, yet without the intense concentration of improvisation either. It’s a beautifully relaxed, almost accidental vibe, like having great musicians on a teabreak in your workshop.

Michael Ellison’s Elif is composed for the great Hafiz Kâni Karaca and an ensemble of neys, bass clarinet, violin and cello. It sounds to me like the most distinctive piece of the three here: a lot of the ensemble music is essentially a bed for Karaca’s magnificent voice, but the whole has real spiritual intensity. The flute solo Invocation (played by Helen Bledsoe) would be the second most distinctive piece, which is interesting because the sleevenotes tell me that it was influenced by the Turkish ney. Ellison’s String Quartet no.2 is a slower burner. Ones first impression is that it drifts rather close to Bartók, but this is only really true in sporadic moments: in the first movement these are dispersed by introspective pauses, false starts, etc. A halting, tentative approach to form that is very un-Bartókian and quite deceptive.

Harley Gaber’s I Saw my Mother Ascending Mount Fuji is an unbroken hour for electronics, violin and alto flute. It is a sort of an amalgam of two, much earlier, solos, Michi for violin and Chimyaku for alto flute. Both these pieces date from 1973 – a different world – and Gaber’s sleevenotes tell in great detail his processes of digitally reshaping and reconceiving the noisy tape masters from 1970s performances by Linda Cummisky and David Gilbert into the piece presented here. What is striking is how contemporary – almost ordinarily so – these pieces sound now. The originals are radically sparse and minimal: long notes punctuated by extensive pauses, a high intensity focus on minute shadings of timbre and pitch. The radical sonic edge of these earlier pieces has been smoothed out by an ambient electronic background of hisses and echoes, but the immensely slow pace remains. In fact, by using the electronic part to cover over passages of silence in the original recordings (which were in any case obliterated by tape hiss) Gaber has further slowed that pace: where before there was at least a clear articulation of on and off, sound and silence, now there is an ever-shifting continuum of sound, a promise of surge and development that is never fulfilled. Despite their minimalism, those earlier pieces had a strongly defined structural articulation. In I Saw my Mother Gaber has subsumed even that into the background: what at first sounds like 100 other 21st-century ambient albums is haunted by a more utopian, idealistic radicalism, a memory of something lost or a discovery of something new?

Continue reading Part 2 here.

How anti-social is Pat Muchmore?

Anti-Social Music: Fracture: The Music of Pat Muchmore

innova 760

Pat Muchmore swirls together electronic drones, howling overblown horns and heavy metal guitars, and asks that more genteel instruments, like strings, flute and accordion, try to keep up. It’s sonically liberated music and owes more than a little to Muchmore’s scholarly interest in Nine Inch Nails (on whom he has written a doctoral thesis). It’s not a unique effect – one can hear the Canadian Constellation label in the middle distance, for example – and it connects with a long history (think Penderecki via Laibach) of bringing acoustic classical instruments into the realm of industrial and/or noise music, an aesthetic with which NIN’s Trent Reznor has some sympathy.

Muchmore calls this style ‘punk-classical’. The pull between those two opposing genres creates the most interesting tension when it tips over to the classical side of that balance – in his Second String Quartet, for example, or the trio for piano and two cellos p@1i/\/\p$35+ β:}{:brokenAphorisms_7–11. This is when I like Muchmore’s music best, when the aggressive, ‘anti-social’ side is a hidden substratum trying to break through, rather than an over-riding idiom. (Hidden layers are themes of his titles, too: p@1i/\/\p$35+ is a typographical disguise for palimpsest.) This is the case with several other pieces on this disc, in which noise elements are squeezed around a more classical gestural vocabulary: the punk side of things is restrained by the classical form (see the tasteful shapeliness of the flute solo in II al-Gharaniq:}{:Fracture IV, for example), whereas the reverse strategy allows the classical to become liberated.

Recent CDs reviewed

Since first visiting China in 1988, Barry Schrader has been fascinated by the mythology of that country. On Monkey King (released on innova last autumn) he presents two substantial fruits of that fascination. Although Wu Xing deals with the abstract ‘cycle of desctruction’ of the five Chinese elements, metal, wood, earth, water and fire, and Monkey King with specific scenes from the ancient fable, both are programmatic and representative, taking the listener on a journey through a series of carefully prepared sonic images.

This makes the whole CD very approachable, and many of these images (particularly the ‘elemental’ sounds of Wu Xing) are extremely evocative. However, those who like to probe their musical experiences a little deeper may find it too unidirectional and unambiguous. You are shown a colourful world, but it remains behind glass, just out of reach: you aren’t invited to contribute further to it as a listener. Here’s what I mean. Schrader tends, for example, to dwell somewhat uncritically on each new sound. In particular, the disc is dominated by deep echo and reverb effects; these emphasise the hazy spiritual aroma of the subjects, but at the cost of definition and differentiation. I don’t object to reverb, but here its uniformity flattens everything onto the same plane. The world in which these sounds exist is uniform, consistent and, ultimately, predictable. Similar things might be said about the rhythmic language, which is dominated by regular, unvarying pulses. Overall this is a very attractive album that may serve as a valuable gateway into electroacoustic music, but that may also disappoint listeners used to grappling with the tougher questions asked in works by Stockhausen and Schaeffer.

Paul J. Abbott‘s Three Left Legacies (idiam) is, from the start, more problematic. Inside the first minute of ‘Ex-C’, after the opening electroacoustic babble has subsided to reveal a cute cor anglais melody, a ferocious electric guitar howl (of High Rise proportions) obliterates everything in sight. Some records sound like a cool drink of water after one another; this is like being punched in the throat, but more fun. The remaining 9 tracks are equally in your face. Abbott’s melodic language ranges from childishly banal to manically hyperactive; the sounds are often loud and aggressively shaped (when they’re not cartoonishly cheesy, as in ‘Pianola Electronica’ or ‘R E L I S H’); the rhythmic patterns crash over one another; every single parameter seems determined not to cooperate with any other. It’s the opposite of Monkey King in some respects. An utterly disorientating experience as a listener in which acquiescence is not an option.

Much more straightforward is Svet Stoyanov’s debut disc of modern works for solo percussion, Percussive Counterpoint (Concert Artists Guild). It opens with Stoyanov’s own arrangement for marimba of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. This sounds pretty much as you’d expect – we’ve all heard Reich on a marimba – but there are plenty of subtleties in Stoyanov’s playing – such as the crisp, quick fades of the pulsing chords, which keeps them distinct from one another – that keep things fresh.

Despite inspiring the CD’s title the Reich piece isn’t representative of what follows in terms of compositional style. Stoyanov’s precise and delicate playing does remain, however. In James Wood’s Rogosanti, written for Bang on a Can virtuoso Steven Schick, this is in the service of great rhythmic complexity and a careful deployment of instrumental resources. In Alejandro’s Viñao’s Khan Variations the harmonic movements that underlay the dense melodic spools are brought out effectively. Eric Sammut’s Four Rotations (another work for marimba, of which there are possibly too many here) is less interesting, but Paul Lansky’s Hop, on which Stoyanov is joined by the violinist Moni Simeonov, is a lovely conclusion to the disc: quirky, sort of folky, quite eerie and continually surprising. A video MPEG of Thierry de Mey’s Musique de table (played by Stoyanov, Kevin Dufford and James Deltz) completes this introduction to a versatile percussionist.

CD Review: John Morton: Solo Traveller (Innova)

Solo TravelerComposer and sound artist John Morton works from his Rockland County, NY, studio manually and electronically reconfiguring music boxes. This CD collects five of his pieces, for music boxes and additional instruments, singers and electronics. The thing with music boxes, most obvious on the closing Amazing Grace Variations, is that they’re mechanically pre-programmed to come out with certain melodies: the medium is the material. Even when you’ve pulled them apart and put them back together, some residue of their original purpose (with evocations of child-like innocence, perhaps) and musical content (certain pitch and rhythm sequences) drips through.

In four of the pieces on this CD, Morton takes such fragmentary glimpses of the familiar that his music boxes bring out, and explodes them through Max/msp to fields of feedback and white noise (passages of Amazing Grace recall Jimi Hendrix’s assault on the Stars and Stripes), bursts of hyperactivity, or great resonant drones.

The exception is the title track, which uses no electronic processing but is instead for an all-live ensemble of five voices and five music boxes and sets the poem ‘The Cathedral as Process’ by Cynthia Nadelman. In this the aspects of disintegration embodied in Morton’s mutilated instruments are carried through into the vocal parts through the use of very long-phrased, exposed solo lines that cause the voice to very slightly wobble and crack at the edges. Unfortunately music box material – a more-or-less continuous thrumming underneath the voices – feels neglected at the expense of the vocal music; it certainly functions as a secondary layer, and tends to drift out of view as it carries on its own way. One effect of this is that the piece as a whole can seem a little laboured as the voices work their slow way through the text without much interaction between them and the boxes to keep up the energy.

In the main, though, this is a fascinating CD. At its best – the birdsong-inspired Ta-wee, for example – Morton elaborates a rich dialogue between naive and sophisticated technology that moves into some surprising sonic territory.

Download “Teetines” (mp3)
from “Solo Traveler”
by John Morton
Innova Recordings

More On This Album

CD Review: Various artists: The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon (Innova)

The Art of the Virtual RythmiconBack in 1931, Henry Cowell asked Lev Termen [aka Leon Theremin] to build him a musical instrument capable of playing the sorts of complex overtones and rhythms that Cowell was working with at the time. The two of them came up with the Rhythmicon, a keyboard instrument a bit like an electric organ with a catch. Using sets of rotating optical discs inside the instrument all the keys were set up to play repeated tones, which were related in pitch and rhythm to one another according to the proportions of the overtone series. Very much a Cowell sort of idea it proved too unreliable to really take off as a concert instrument, but in 2003 American Public Media commissioned an online version for its American Mavericks website and radio show. The Virtual Rhythmicon – a greatly enhanced extrapolation of the original concept – has been online since then, and anyone can play around and submit the results to the American Mavericks archive. Mind you, I’ve had a good muck around on it and I’ve not produced anything that comes close to what’s on this album, so it’s not to be underestimated.

By the nature of the instrument, the nine tracks on The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon are all built around sustained synth tones, wave forms, pulse patterns and the like, but with a notable emotional range. Schaefer’s work is a lush meditation paradoxically titled ‘All Bombing is Terrorism’, Gosfield deftly blends buzzing sawtooth waves with sweeping cello harmonics. Philip Blackburn samples a quarter-tone piano duet by Mildred Couper to evoke the concert where both her compositions and the rhythmicon were heard for the first time, while Jeff Feddersen samples Cowell’s voice over music designed to push the limits of the virtual rhythmicon to sonic breaking point. Burtner’s two contributions are dedications to his new-born son and his parents’ 60th birthday, producing rich sound worlds that belie their origins in simple algorithms, and Viv Corringham mixes her own voice, using everyday objects as resonators, over jangly, brassy blasts from the rhythmicon.

The two final tracks step furthest from the pure overtone beats of the rhythmicon medium. Mark Eden’s ‘Cremation Science’ is a Warhol-inspired pop collage, but the real gem of the whole disc is the final track, Robert Normandeau’s awesome ‘Chorus’, dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Using sound materials intended to represent Judaism (shofar), Christianity (bells) and Islam (muezzin), it’s a brooding concrete slab of a work in which menace, frustration, scratchy anxiety and spiritual profundity are all held in balance for a draining 15 minutes. No one would blame you for buying the CD for this piece alone – and you’d be in luck because the rest of the disc isn’t far behind in interest.

Download “Spectral for 0” (mp3)
from “The Art of the Virtual Rythmicon”
by Matthew Burtner
Innova Recordings

More On This Album