In April 2020, I received an email from Brian Howard, director of the Australian publisher Wildbird Music. Wildbird wanted to produce a monograph on Liza Lim’s music to add to their Australian Composers series. Liza had recommended my name to him; would I like to write it?
This was just three weeks into the first Covid lockdown and life was still rather scary and uncertain. And here was the chance not only to work on a large-scale project, but also one involving an artist whose music is very important to me. In fact, a book on Liza had been in my mind as a possible project one day, I just hadn’t thought he might publish it. I waited a beat, then bit Brian’s hand off.
Quite quickly I got the book’s overall structure worked out. Brian wanted an introduction to Liza’s music that was detailed and focused on the scores, but also appealing to a student audience. Based on the other books in Wildbird’s series (on Nigel Butterley, Richard Meale, Peter Sculthorpe and Carl Vine), I settled on chapters for different performance forces (solo, chamber, vocal, orchestral, installation and stage music) and began drawing up lists of works that could be covered in each chapter, based on a general principle of trying to show as much range in Liza’s work and in the themes her music addresses. Each chapter would be chronological, and the whole book would grow in scale, from the short viola solo Amulet with which it begins, to the 2016 opera Tree of Codes with which it ends. As I wrote, I would try to add layers of understanding with each new piece. And that was all I needed to get started. Unusually for me, I wrote it from beginning to end, which I hope conveys some sense of discovery and exploration, as well as of a continuing thread (or bundle of threads), which is how I see Liza’s overall body of work.
Of course, there were some shifts and changes along the way: some of the running themes only became apparent midway through the project and had to be retrospectively inserted into earlier chapters. The chapter on installations moved several times before finding its final position. And, pertinently for this blog, analyses of three pieces were taken out of the book entirely, primarily for reasons of space.
Until then, I will be posting those three unused analyses as bonus content here over the next few days, starting on Friday with Liza’s short gift to the Arditti Quartet, The Weaver’s Knot. Stay tuned! And if you’re in Berlin on the 11th, come and say hi.
Beginning with this playlist, compiled deep in locked-down 2020, it has been something of a side project of mine to get to grips with the music of Anthony Braxton. Exactly two years on, I feel like I’m still only scratching the surface. For someone whose education and writing are so steeped in the author-work orthodoxy of Western art music, as mine are, Braxton’s music presents a number of challenges. (Those challenges are part of the reason for my interest, of course.) Among them is Braxton’s central role as performer and director of his own music. Braxton’s reputation is founded first on his saxophone and clarinet playing (he is still – as on the cover of Timo Hoyer’s recently published comprehensive overview – often pictured with one instrument or another to hand), and much of his discography features him as a performer. Often this has been forced by necessity: Braxton’s marginalisation by the art music establishment for much of his life required him to act as his own champion and impresario. For years, if he didn’t play his music, few others would. Nevertheless, the line between his different roles as composer and bandleader is a blurred one. This distinction is, to be sure, founded in a racially coded division between jazz and classical music, and in the different values the two respective genres (and the wider culture industry around them) place on writing and performing. But it does still heighten interest in recordings of Braxton’s music on which the composer himself is not present.
The Belgian guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe has also been on a mission to explore Braxton’s music, although far more comprehensively and to much greater effect than I. In November 2020 he released an acclaimed solo album of three compositions in Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music (GTM) style (numbers 255, 284 and 358) on All That Dust. And a year later he brought a septet to Luxembourg’s Rainy Days festival to play Composition 255. A studio recording of this work, plus three other recordings with the same septet (Compositions 193, 264 and 358) make up this superb double LP. Braxton was in the audience in Luxembourg and, according to Hoyer’s somewhat effusive sleevenotes, ‘could hardly contain himself with emotion and excitement. Understandably so. I dare say he had never experienced his GTM concept from the listener’s perspective as varied, elaborate and fluid as on that day.’ My own view is that Van Cauwenberghe and his septet have redefined the landscape of Braxton recordings.
Ghost Trance Music is one of numerous compositional methods or styles Braxton has developed over the years, each of which adds new possibilities to his music while still accommodating those that have gone before (for a primer, see Seth Colter Walls’ introduction to Braxton’s compositional systems; for a deeper dive, see this article by Erica Dicker). Rather than moving episodically from one stylistic phase to another, Braxton’s career can be viewed as a tree or, better, as mycelium – a continually branching-converging network of threads that equally pushes forward and feeds back. Each compositional system is both spore, vessel and boring machine, offering ways of generating patches of this network, transiting through it, or cutting new paths across it. The GTM system – grounded in the Ghost Dance rituals by which the surviving fragments of decimated Native American populations pooled their knowledge and culture in the late nineteenth century in the face of colonial destruction – is one of the richest of these, and is the main focus of Van Cauwenberghe’s research. It is based around a form of endless melody, initially imagined in a steady, walking bass-type rhythm but later ornamented with complex rhythmic ‘breaks’ (irrational subdivisions of the beat). In Dicker’s analysis, this melody serves as a kind of musical highway, or ‘meta-road’, off which various diversions, off-ramps or intersections may be indicated, which the performer(s) may choose to follow (or not) according to Braxton’s suggestions. The system is designed, says Dricker, ‘to put the player in the driver’s seat, drawing his or her intentions into the navigation of the performance, determining the structure of the performance itself’.
Some of the diversions off the meta-road involve reference to secondary materials written on loose-leaf pages of score (a model of strict core and looser supplements somewhat like Ferneyhough’s Cassandra’s Dream Song, for example, although with a much wider range of freedoms and possibilities). Others involve the ‘language music’ that is one of Braxton’s first compositional systems – a set of twelve performance directives (trill every note, play legato melodies, play accented sustained notes, etc) indicated by graphic symbols. Still others involve tertiary or ‘outside’ materials, selected (prior to performance) from anywhere else in Braxton’s oeuvre. This may include primary melodies or secondary materials from any other GTM composition, or it might include material from any part of Braxton’s hundreds of other compositions. (The last section of Braxton’s tentet recording of Composition 286, from 2001, for example, features material from Composition 23A, first recorded on the seminal New York, Fall 1974 album.) As Dricker explains, over the eleven years that Braxton employed his GTM approach (between 1995 and 2006), he developed it in several ways, emphasising or de-emphasising different aspects, adding or substracting elements but always, in Braxton’s characteristic manner, with a view to increasing the music’s plurality and heterogeneity.
The collage approach – fundamental, I would say, to Braxton’s aesthetic – was developed in Braxton’s work with small ensembles, most notably his legendary quartet of the 80s and early 90s with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway. It is documented in Graham Lock’s essential book, and on ferocious albums such as this. The fluidity of this music can be utterly thrilling, but if you are not familiar with at least some of Braxton’s other music, it can be hard to identify where the different collaged elements begin and end, and thus perceive the musical space in all its dimensions. In the meta-road approach of GTM, however, Braxton finds a sweet spot between freedom and control, between an easily identifiable foundation and easily identifiable diversion, without limiting the range or variety of those diversions (some of which are identified in Hoyer’s sleevenotes).
The four compositions on this album cover all four variations of the GTM style, from the simpler first phase of Composition 193, with its greater emphasis on the primary melody, no subdivisions of its regular pulse, and an emphasis on specified pitches in its secondary material (leading to a greater control of pitch overall); to the fourth, ‘accelerator class’, in which the primary melody beats are almost all subdivided or obscured (although still present on an intermediate level), and in which the melody moves through accelerating and decelerating waves; there are also fewer deviations from the primary melody indicated, although the melody itself is provided with numerous layers of colour, articulation and graphical elements that ensure that it is always different. Three, numbers 193, 255 and 358, have been recorded before – numbers 255 and 358 by Van Cauwenberghe himself on his solo recording. Number 264 appears to be given its first recording here.
In general, the septet’s playing is smoother than that of Braxton’s own groups: the staccato punch of the primary melody is less pronounced (it thus appears more as a continuous stream, albeit one whose contours are thoroughly unpredictable); the instrumental timbres are more blended (even though, paradoxically, they are often more diverse – compare Braxton’s sax duo version of 255 with Chris Jonas on GTM (Outpost) 2003). The septet’s renditions are also much more compact than Braxton’s, which can often – for my money – shade into indulgence. Whereas Braxton and his groups will often extend a composition to an hour or more, Van Cauwenberghe’s renditions (both in the septet and solo) all hover around the 20-minute mark.
None of this to say that these are compromised or limited performances. The septet’s playing – particularly its flexibility of idiom, from avant-garde to blues to hillbilly – equals or even exceeds anything I’ve heard in Braxton’s recordings (I’ve hardly heard them all, but for me Braxton ploughs more consistently a free jazz/modern compositional idiom than his music necessarily demands). A lot of that emerges simply from instrumental combinations within the group: more violin is going to sound more country, more drums and bass is going to sound more blues/funk. But Van Cauwenberghe’s players lean into those identities with a range of idiomatic rhythmic and articulatory nuances. Van Cauwenberghe repeats one of the tricks from his solo record by bringing in the funkily slinky Composition 40f in the last third of 255, but in the group setting it grooves that much harder; it has a counterpart in the post-bop central section of 264, in which Verbruggen, Medinilla and Sakham most clearly coalesce as a distinct rhythm section (only to tease themselves apart again within a minute or two).
The polystylism of some of the secondary and tertiary breakdowns – when the individual identities of the players come to the fore – are more Ives than Ives: melting and melding more than clashing. They are deliciously fluid, rippled through with energies of seven players continuously listening and adjusting to each other. There is the same unstoppable magmatic flow that is captured on the classic quartet recordings (Verbruggen’s skittering drums and Medinilla’s fistfuls of keys do a lot of work in capturing that mood), but there is also introspection, stillness, melancholy even, as in the slow breakdown into the central section of 193 or the Sciarrino-like glitter of 358. Newcomers to Braxton’s work may still wish to start with those quartet recordings, but for the sound of Braxton without himself at the helm, they will want to come here very soon after.
Last July I swam in the sea for the first time after five months of Covid-19 shielding and it felt like a benediction. The ending of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Solstices last night – as the lights rose on the Riot Ensemble sounding an immense, reverberating, crashing chord after more than an hour of total darkness – felt the same, but more so.
Solstices is an awkward piece. Parts of it verge on being boring (although there’s usually something unexpected around the corner). Other than the progression from one harmonic field to another, there isn’t much of a shape to its first two thirds. (After the first ‘cataclysmic event’ around, I guess, fifty minutes in, it does become more directional, and there is a steady increase in intensity until the final dissipation.) The fact that almost all of it is played in complete darkness adds a lot, certainly: last night the faint glow of Kings Place’s cooling spotlights overhead gave one a sense of floating in space. Another weightlessness comes from the combination of darkness and Haas’s microtonal trickery, which makes it difficult to tell each instrument apart, a marvellously disorienting effect. And some sections – such as the tentacular opening of overlapping, descending scales, seem to spill, Akira-like over the stage and into the space before us. Yet while it is exciting and novel, sitting in complete darkness for this long is hard work (wearing a mask makes it even more so), even without having to find your way around a piano keyboard or percussion set-up. Before every performance of Solstices the lights are brought down for two minutes to give everyone an idea of what to expect and a chance to bail out. This is a piece that asks a lot of its listeners.
But quickly Solstices established itself as just the right work for this moment. (The last live music I heard before Covid lockdown was Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, played by the same ensemble in the same hall. Retrospectively that seemed about right too.) It’s a generous piece in that it doesn’t matter too much if you take a few minutes to get used to it; and after so long, we all needed that time to readjust our ears. Haas describes it as a love song (despite its title it has nothing to do with astronomy, but with the coincidence that he met his partner Mollena Haas-Williams on the winter solstice of 2013, and they married on the summer solstice of 2014), and it is full of moments in which players have to make connections with each other: notable in my memory is an early passage in which the guitar has to retune to the piano’s next microtonal harmony. Even in the dark it was possible to visualise the interaction of the two players, and vivid to hear the way in which the guitar’s notes drifted towards and then inexorably locked with and were embraced by the piano’s.
And then that ending … last night it was not so much breath-taking as breath-mugging, breath-dragged-into-an-unmarked-van never to be seen again. Much of the impact was due to the sheer joy of seeing live music once more – this absolutely is a piece that cannot be streamed – but this was simply the event that Solstices had occasioned. More of it was the sense of having gone through something together, making the work’s endurances and longeurs absolutely necessary.
After Solstices’ premiere at Reykjavik’s Dark Music Days festival in January 2019, Simon Cummings wrote that ‘Haas’ chords suggested plenty of waiting, the potential of light, though the light itself stubbornly failed to materialise. It begged the question: is the act of waiting more exciting than its fulfillment?’ And goodness me have we had to wait for this moment. It seemed ironic that after a sixteen-month break in seeing any live music, I’d chosen to wait another seventy minutes before I saw any musicians doing anything. But then the lights came up and we could see the flesh and sinew of these ten, brilliant players going at their instruments for all they were worth, and it seemed absolutely appropriate.
News of two returns/relaunches caught my attention this week.
First, Neuma Records has announced the rare release of a new album by Pamela Z, only her third ever (a fact I always found surprising for such a media-oriented artist), and her first since A Delay is Better in 2004. A Secret Code features studies and excerpts from larger works (including Baggage Allowance, Occupy, Echo and her piece for Kronos Quartet, And the Movement of the Tongue) and remixes and new recordings of favourites from her solo performances, including Typewriter, Quatre Couches, and Flare Stains. Adding to the excitement, Annea Lockwood has contributed sleeve notes:
I have long treasured Pamela Z’s work for its vigor, inexhaustible ideas, fluid intricacy of texture, and for its sheer joyousness. An infectious, often surreal humor runs through the whole album, brilliantly upending everyday experience. The letter she is typing disintegrates, flare stains on a road become animate, and in Unknown Person even the TSA’s mundane but weighted questions are subverted, and disintegrate in the hilarious list of packed garments and hopes which follows. Voice, the most intimate of instruments, is a shape-shifter in her hands, transformed by gestural control and electronics in her performances and mutating, time-stretched and compressed as Timepiece Triptych, and throughout her work, with a dazzling compositional virtuosity.
Second, word comes of a forthcoming relaunch on 16 July of Toronto’s Rat-drifting, the legendary Toronto label founded in 2002 by Eric Chenaux and Martin Arnold and home to many of Canada’s loveliest esoteric sounds. In 2016 the label lent its name to the working title – ‘Drifting off the radar’ – of a feature I wrote for The Wire on new Canadian experimental music. In that article I wrote:
Through the 2000s it was a focal point for a woozy, intoxicating brand of psychedelic folk that drew notated music composers like Arnold and Allison Cameron into the same orbit as post-rockers like Chenaux, Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli … The label’s credo can stand in for a lot of the aesthetic preoccupations of the current wave of Canadian experimental music … This is slack writ large.
There’s a great listening primer to the Rat-drifting sound here. If you prefer disorientation to certainty, getting lost to being on time and wandering over journeying, you’re sure to find something here to enjoy. July’s label relaunch will see Rat-drifting’s entire catalogue move to Bandcamp, as well as two releases not previously available online – The Guayaveras’s (Eric Chenaux, Ryan Drive) In the Market and Nightjars’ (Chenaux, Jason Benoit) The Natural Playmate – and three new albums by the Draperies (Chenaux, Driver, Doug Tielli), Golden Melody Awards (Driver, Kurt Newman) and eldritch Priest.
There are several reasons I’m excited by the release this week of binary systems by Richard Barrett and collaborators (available through Richard’s Bandcamp page). First, the music sounds like it’s going to be great; I’m listening to the opening track, Dysnomia, made with guitarist Daryl Buckley and it goes, just as you would expect, into all sorts of weird and inexplicable places. (The ending especially offers a new instance of the slow, melting drone style that I think is the most characteristic feature of Richard’s work to have emerged in the last few years.) Second, though, it’s evidence of a sort of pandemic creativity that I drew attention to a few days ago on Twitter: videos, studio work, solo compositions, unusual collaborations, self-performances and so on that may in time shift the centre of gravity of what a ‘work’ is – within the compositional field at least; it has long been a more complex concept in other fields – away from notated works for an ensemble on stage in front of an audience and towards a wider range of possibilities. Traditional concerts and new works written for them will return one day, but this emergent diversity is likely a good thing in the long run.
Dysnomia is just such a thing. Without in-person access to the international network of performers that usually energises his work, Barrett has encouraged a network of online collaborators instead, and a means of creating work with them that is not only musically rewarding in itself but takes his own practice into potentially fruitful new directions. For some time there has been something of the studio composer to Barrett’s working methods: the way he layers texture-types, even whole bands of material, the management of transitions, the editing of modules to collage them together in larger polyworks (a part of his work since Negatives) and so on. With Dysnomia this is taken to a new level. Barrett has solicited solo improvisations by five musicians (a sixth, requested from John Russell, was not possible before the guitarist’s death in January this year; the album is dedicated to him), and used these as raw material for the creation of fixed media works in a process of duo composition that sidesteps the various difficulties of face-to-face meeting and online live performance. In a way it is a reversal of what happens at the end of CONSTRUCTION, where improvisation takes place on the basis of composed materials (to the extent that improvisation and composition can be viewed as opposites anyway, which is partly the point). It’s a method that recasts Barrett as something more of a DJ or producer than a composer in the usual sense, and challenges conventional notions of authorship, composition and ‘the work’. All five musicians – Buckley, Lori Freedman, Ivana Grahovac, Anne La Berge and Lê Quan Ninh – have worked with Barrett before, and this awareness of shared languages and forms gives coherence to the music, but the dislocated, distanced working method productively cracks that open too. Take a listen here:
Today it is a real pleasure to announce that Riot Ensemble has been awarded one of the first ever Ernst von Siemens Ensemble Prizes. I joined Riot in 2016 on the invitation of its director Aaron Holloway-Nahum, becoming a member of the group’s Artistic Board and its in-house writer. That’s still quite a rare role within any new music ensemble, but I took it at the time as an indication of the seriousness of Aaron’s vision for the group, to turn Riot – which was, then, still essentially an ensemble of recent graduates playing gigs in churches – into a leading international ensemble for new music. That faith has been repaid. To be part of Riot’s journey from then up to this major recognition has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my musical life. Working with professionals of this talent, energy and accomplishment has been a unique privilege.
It was a Riot concert that bookended my pre-lockdown concert-going life, and I couldn’t have wished for a happier or more enriching event on which to pause. Since then and in response to the Covid-19 emergency, we have been commissioning, performing and video-releasing new solo works for individual members of the group in conjunction with Zeitgeist, hcmf//, BBC Radio 3, the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, PRS for Music and the University of Southampton. To see videos of all the works we have commissioned in this series so far, as well as interviews with every composer, please see our YouTube page.
This Friday, however, you can hear the ensemble play together again as part of the Wien Modern festival. Riot will be playing new commissions by two of my favourite composers, Clara Iannotta (They left us grief-trees wailing at the wall) and Chaya Czernowin (Fast Darkness I: I can see your turned eyes from inside your body), as well as Ann Cleare’s wonderful, fragile piano trio 93 million miles away. The concert will be live-streamed at https://www.wienmodern.at/ on Friday evening, and also features interviews (by me) with the composers. The whole thing will be available for seven days, free of charge. Please join us to share in the celebrations.
‘A welcome reminder of the value of risk in artistic creation’: the way in which I ended my NZfM profile of Bastard Assignments, written seven or eight months ago, might be applied even more forcefully to the group’s work during the Covid-19 lockdown. Since early on in lockdown, the composer-performer group have been producing a series of videos under the heading Lockdown Jams. Until quite recently these have been short, experimental, and very odd.
They began with a trio of ‘Hangouts Jams’ (the third an editing-together of the first two), then a group of ‘Zoom Jams’ – the titles reflecting the early lockdown drift from one messaging platform to another before we all, like dust in a solar system, coalesced around the same one. The first few jams were barely more than sketched (barely even that); but at a time in which finished artistic work could not yet be presented, glimpses behind the scenes – at our bookshelves, our haircuts, our childcare arrangements – were for a while all we had.
The videos are made out of what I guess are improvised sessions, but the preparations (costumes, backgrounds, props, camera angles) and the edits (capturing awkward glances, corpsing, deliberate gestures and accidental mistakes) betray a deliberate hand acting before and after the recording itself. When I first came across them a couple of months ago I wasn’t sure what to make of them, but as I’ve returned throughout lockdown, their language has come to make more and more sense to me. They really do capture the feel of those early weeks of lockdown: a world being constructed from scratch, in which the old meanings were irrelevant, in which certainties were unravelling, and in which were all alone, scared, and desperately bored. A world that was anarchic, glitched, gonzo, primal. A world in which we all experienced each other one second out of synch, inexpertly framed, compressed and mediated by audiovisual processing algorithms. Edward Henderson’s grinning face, emerging from a glitchy day-glo backdrop while he plays bad keyboard muzak, might be one of my favourite images of the last few months. (In case it helps you make sense of all this, Timothy Cape below him seems to be reading locations on Google Maps while enjoying a pot of yoghurt. ‘Waterstones bookshop … aawmmmm …’. No, it doesn’t.) This is a cyborg world that continues to be silly and inventive and fun.
After the first couple of weeks, Lockdown Jams started to become more structured – although retaining that glitchy anarchy. There are TikTok-y performed transcriptions, experiments with feedback and multiple cameras, and then at the end of April a canon, a two-part invention and other pieces with a greater sense of unifying concept (even if Cape almost loses it in Pointer). These are works that are not about the pandemic, but are attempts to find artistic ways around it.
In May, some of the footage moves outside. And then at the end of that month one more video, Fugue in C minor BWV 847 (a title guaranteed to mess up some people’s YouTube recommendations) that seems like the most complete and coherent of them all: the four Zoom quadrants identically framed, the four performers working through a series of hand gestures in approximate canon with each other, a pre-recorded soundtrack that recalls the early Hangouts Jams; the Zoom format working perfectly for the hall-of-mirrors effect that you often get from Bastard Assignments performances, which are less often an quartet than a solo being done four times simultaneously.
Since Fugue in C minor, Bastard Assignments have received funding from Arts Council England to commission further Lockdown Jams from a multi-disciplinary range of artists, including choreographers Lea Anderson and Thick and Tight; composers Jennifer Walshe, Alexander Schubert, Marcela Lucatelli, Neil Luck, and Michael Brailey; and theatre makers Alan Fielden and Oliver Dawe. These have begun appearing on the group’s website, and more will be appearing in the next few weeks. Neil Luck’s Every Time We Say Goodbye is a darkly comic miniature horror movie about household spaces. Marcela Lucatelli’s quartet of pieces Griefs ‘n Tapes, Red, Green, Blue and Bleached, combine semi-deserted location footage (concrete changing rooms; some recycling bins; unused beach volleyball courts) with Abba soundtracks and cut-in videos of Bastard Assignments’ members performing bizarre, colour-coded actions at home. The fourth part begins in rehearsal, as the group inch their way towards a rendition of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (‘Sorry, can we do it again, I can’t see it’s too far away … hold your note until you explode … but then what happens? …’), until suddenly Lucatelli herself appears on screen, striking poses between the volleyball courts, and now – because we’re so used to looking at each other through our screens – we can’t be sure who is watching whom any more (are Lucatelli’s grimaces those of the character in Abba’s song, or of the director of her own work?), a very 2020 mise en abyme.
My favourite so far, though, is Alexander Schubert’s Browsing, Idling, Invsetigating, Dreaming, which has found a way to aestheticise the feel of messing around online in 2020, following random paths on Streetview, browsing Freesound for samples, playing with the text-to-speech app TTSReader, listening to music through a screen-shared Spotify playlist (music round on the family quiz?). At one hour, it’s significantly longer than any other video so far, but it retains a lot of the language of the frenetic early Lockdown Jams, greatly attenuated into an almost Zenlike idleness.
The following text is the original English version of an article I wrote at the end of last year, and which will be published soon in German in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (3/2020; purchase here). Except for the addition of some links, the text is unchanged from my original. I will be writing more here about BA, and what they have been up to during lockdown, later this week. Stay tuned.
Bastard Assignments is a composer-performer collective that emerged around 2012 from among the student composers of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in southeast London. Since 2013, and led by two of those students, Edward Henderson and Timothy Cape, it has been at the forefront of London’s lively DIY new music scene (which also includes groups and concert series such as Nonclassical, Music We’d Like to Hear, Weisslich, An Assembly and the London Contemporary Music Festival), putting on concerts in derelict or off-grid spaces. These include a bombed chapel, a tunnel under the Thames, police cells, and, in 2014–15, a series of concerts given in friends’ front rooms. Many of their concerts have featured a relatively small number of like-minded composers (among them Neo Hülcker, Andy Ingamells, Josh Spear and Caitlin Rowley), and in 2015 Henderson and Cape were formally joined by Rowley and Spear – two more former Trinity students.
From 2016, the quartet began to work increasingly collaboratively, composing pieces as a group as well as performing them. The inspiration came from Jennifer Walshe and David Helbich’s composer–performer workshop at Darmstadt, which was attended by Henderson and Spear. ‘From that process we got some ideas about a much more feedback-intensive compositional process’, Henderson tells me. ‘I remember thinking that we’re not using each other as a compositional resource. We could be opening up pieces to different ideas, different ways of doing things. Rather than bringing the finished piece and saying “this is how you would perform it”, it was “here’s the idea, and let’s talk about whether it works or not”.’
Although groups of composers have called themselves ‘collectives’ before – one example in London is the Camberwell Composer’s Collective, whose most well-known member is probably Anna Meredith – these are usually ways of sharing resources, staging concerts together, and increasing promotional impact. It is rare for composers to work truly collaboratively, making their music together like a rock band would. Intrigued by what Bastard Assigments were doing, in April 2019 I attended one of their rehearsals in a studio space in East London, to interview the group and get an idea of their working methods.
When I arrived they had already been at work for two hours. Henderson, Rowley and Spear were seated on plastic chairs. Their teeth were clamped around bank cards, which they were twanging with their fingers. Cape was directing them. The piece they were rehearsing was in theory his, but the other three composers were all making suggestions – on different ways in which the cards could be flicked, how best to hold them to make a good sound, ways in which transitions between one sound and another might be made, and so on. The feeling was more like a laboratory than a rehearsal. Ideas were still being tested, the piece was coming together in real time with its performers, not in the composer’s study or ‘at the piano’.
On the studio floor were piles of objects. Some of them you would expect to see at an all-day rehearsal: instrument cases, sandwich bags, coffee cups, guitar amplifiers. Others were unexpected. There was a large cooking pot with drumsticks and glass bottles inside. A camera tripod. And a set of glittery hula hoops. On a large whiteboard on the wall was written a list of seemingly unconnected words: Popcorn, Car 1, Execution 1, American Werewolf, Dog, Foley, and so on. These were cues for Spear’s FEED, a 16-minute work involving all four members acting out scenes connected with horror and horror films.
During the course of the rehearsal, as the group worked on each others’ pieces they offered advice and suggestions to one another. ‘Don’t be too nice to the audience’; ‘Stick to your guns – stay wrong!’ There were lots of comments about pacing, in particular stretching things out in time so that they start to become uncomfortable and turn into something else; I was reminded of the routines of the stand-up comic Stewart Lee, in which a joke is told over and over until it stops being boring or annoying and starts to become funny again.
For FEED, the group video-recorded themselves giving a complete performance, which they then projected onto a studio wall and critiqued in terms of stage positioning, posture and action as they watched – a simple and effective form of self-directing that would not have been possible before the invention of digital video cameras, high capacity hard-drives and portable video projectors. It exemplified a combination of raw physicality and technological mediation that runs throughout Bastard Assignments’ work, and that is at the heart of its modernity.
‘We can be quite rude with each other, or very direct’, Spear explains, when I ask about their collaborative method. ‘The basis of trust and friendship that we’ve built up allows us to bypass that without people’s feelings getting hurt’, adds Rowley. ‘To some extent we’ve worked together so much now that we know the kinds of things each of us is going to like or dislike about a piece, and where something has come from.’
This love of directness – ‘Politeness takes up too much time’, says Henderson – extends beyond the group’s working method and into its compositional aesthetic. As in all great bands, all four members have their own distinct style. Several times in FEED the performers must lip sync to a scene from John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) to increasingly comical effect. Rowley’s fierce vocal solo dot drip line 8918: EDGE confronts its audience with a vast catalogue of sounds and physical gestures made at the limits of the voice. Cape also writes vocal works for himself to perform: in his SUGAR CAGE, he performs a virtuoso duet with a digitally fragmented audio-visual version of himself. Of the four, Henderson is the closest to a ‘traditional’ composer, writing scores for conventional instruments even if, as in the case of his Flower – a slow-motion instrumental and electronic disintegration of a moment from David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ – that might simply be the instruction to play in a certain style or for a certain duration.
Yet certain shared preoccupations emerge between their works: experiments with duration, with the voice, with everyday or found objects and materials. All four composers avoid making things that are too artful, too commercial or too earnest, drawing on traditions of performance art, music theatre and video art, as well as concert music. Like stand-up comedians or cabaret performers, they are interested in creating and controlling audience expectations; yet working outside those more formal contexts allows them to be even more weird, even more subversive. In an interview with the journalist Robert Barry in 2017, Henderson observed that ‘the most direct thing is just if someone gets up and does something themselves. There’s no instrument. There’s no big load of scores. There’s no conductor or anything like that. It’s just them.’ Cape put it more forcefully when I spoke to him this year: ‘Total belief in notation – I think that’s the trap.’ In a new music culture which is often too cautious, Bastard Assignments are a welcome reminder of the value of risk in artistic creation.
Photo by Dimitri Djuric. Bastard Assignments performing Marcela Lucatelli’s Impossible Penetrations at Total Refreshment Centre, London, March 2018.
In 2017 I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere of Chaya Czernowin’s third opera, Infinite Now, at Opera Vlaanderen in Ghent, Belgium. It was a remarkable experience.
The opera’s libretto is based on and amalgamates two stories: the novel Homecoming by the Chinese avant-garde writer Can Xue (born 1953), and the play FRONT by the Belgian director Luk Perceval, itself based on Erich Maria Remarque’s famous novel Im Westen nicht Neues. In Homecoming a woman returns, in darkness, to a house she believes she knows, only to find that it is now hanging over the edge of an abyss and that she is trapped. In FRONT, soldiers from the trenches of the First World War write home to their loved ones describing the unending horror and despair they are experiencing. The feminine story of a woman who has come home, only to be trapped domestically, is mirrored by the masculine story of men who have gone to war, only to find themselves trapped in a different, unchanging eternity.
At the time, I wrote that ‘Infinite Now is about entrapment, and about finding life (perhaps hope not hope, as such, but at least a compulsion to go on) in such situations’. It is a very large work, which seems occupy to an almost overwhelming extent its available space, while always seeping slowly deeper into new spaces that in turn it fills again, like lava. Its sonic scale is immense: in a step away from many of her earlier works, Czernowin composed Infinite Now in large brushstrokes, without the infinitesimal detail that characterises scores like Maim or her first opera Pnima. The soundworld is conceived on a vast scale, in every dimension; like Merzbow written at the pace of Feldman. The huge orchestra is complemented by a giant surround-sound speaker array that moves electronic and instrumental sound around the auditorium with disorienting precision.
The opera’s six acts are played without break (to a total of two and a half hours). Each one begins approximately the same, with the clanking of an iron gate, and follows approximately the same structure. Although each iteration moves stepwise away from the last while retaining something of its genetic make-up, according to a meme-like forward-progress/call-back logic. While so much remains the same, each iteration pulls us across the threshold of a new understanding: every time something is stripped away, something new is revealed. As she told me the morning after the premiere, ‘It’s like when you see a person for the first time: you know nothing about them. But you think, after I have lived with them for half a year I will know. But it’s exactly the opposite. You see them for the first time and you know everything there is to know. You live with them for half a year and you know nothing!’
There is a lot about Infinite Now – from its title upwards – that seems to suit it to our present limbo-time. That is a trivial assessment of a work that is so much more extraordinary than that (and a trivial assessment of the catastrophe that is Covid-19). Yet it is fitting – and exceedingly welcome – that the European opera live-streaming site OperaVision has just begun showing Infinite Nowon its website, and via YouTube. The recording and filming are both excellent, capturing both the scale and devastating intimacy of the work, and doing a decent job of handling the complexities of the surround-sound electronics. Infinite Now will be available to view until January 2021, but I advise you to take advantage of this opportunity as soon as you can. Headphones or good speakers recommended.
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.
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.
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.
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.)