CD review: Marianne Schuppe: slow songs (Wandelweiser)

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Marianne Schuppe: slow songs

Marianne Schuppe

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Eleven songs for voice and lute by the Swiss singer and composer Marianne Schuppe. The instrumentation taps a deep historical channel, back to Dowland and beyond. But Schuppe doesn’t pluck her lute. Instead she uses e-bows to turn a melodic accompanying instrument into an environment, an ancient combination updated to reflect a contemporary preference for objects over stories. The songs are simple melodies, sometimes folklike (ballads and laments more than dances), but with words and music full of unexpected, almost surreal twists: the images used include deer, feathers, sunhats and cameras; the music little scales and motifs, subtle modal shifts. The whole fuses traditional and modern, nature and technology, such that each is indistinguishable.

CD reviews: Finnissy and Susman

[With apologies: these have been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time.]

Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea’s recording of music for music for violin and piano by Michael Finnissy is another addition to Métier’s long-running Finnissy series. Six pieces are featured, from the 30-second Jive to the 21-minute Violin Sonata (written for Morgan in 2007). Apart from Mississippi Hornpipes of 1982, all the pieces were composed in the 00s. This is the complete works for violin and piano (so solo violin works like All the trees they are so high (1977), or Ének (1990) aren’t included here), and in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes and Molly House it includes pieces for flexible or alternative forces. On three tracks Finnissy himself also plays as a second keyboardist.

In his sleevenote, Morgan describes Mississippi Hornpipes as ‘notoriously difficult’, and its technical challenges are obvious to hear. Finnissy describes it as a ‘cut-up’ of American fiddle tunes, and it audibly prefigures his approach in later, longer works such as Folklore and North American Spirituals (indeed, lots of The History of Photography in Sound). The difficulties aren’t limited to getting through the notes though; the multilayered characteristics of each different folk transcription have to be brought out too – in both their unity and their diversity. Morgan and Dullea do a superb job with razor-sharp articulation and a watchful ear against needlessly highlighting the tunes when they do peep through.

The Violin Sonata is a representative of what I think is a relatively recent development in Finnissy’s music (maybe I’m wrong?) of building not so much from a transcription, or even transdialection of an existing (folk or art) source, but extrapolating outwards from it. So Finnissy’s piece exists in a sort of horizontal relationship to its predecessor, rather than a vertical one (although in truth both are diagonal to an extent). The Grieg Quintettsatz (also released on Métier) comes most directly to mind as a comparison. I like it anyway. It has that surreal, hallucinatory quality of much of Finnissy’s music, in which reality is glimpsed through a rain-soaked windscreen. Métier have released some landmark recordings of Finnissy’s music in the past, and this is a worthy addition.

OCTET‘s debut album, released on belarca last June, is a portrait of music by its artistic director, William Susman. There’s an obvious debt to Glassworks-era Philip Glass, but the music is deliciously more mellifluous than that; the first movement of Camille has a Stereolab-like groove, Even in the Dark has a post-midnight languor. Piano Concerto doesn’t do much for me as a concerto, but it has other good ideas to make up for it. The line-up of OCTET is basically stripped-down big band, and the timbres of sax, trumpet, trombone, and bass, as well as a drum kit playing typical drum patterns, do a lot of work in defining the music’s particular character. An album that falls between several stools – classical minimalism, cool jazz, avant pop – but makes a comfortable place to sit nevertheless.

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

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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.

Michael Oesterle: all words

I loved Michael Oesterle’s all words when I first heard EXAUDI sing it last year, so I was delighted today to chance upon a recording from that concert on Soundcloud.

Here’s what I wrote in my Tempo review at the time (no. 272, pp. 72–4):

all words by the Canadian Michael Oesterle sets, in alphabetical sequence, all 1,015 three-letter words from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. On paper, unpromising material; in practice, anything but. The first brilliant thing Oesterle does is to draw out the inherent structural features of such a list. It will almost all (but, crucially, not entirely) consist of single-syllable words, which immediately carries a rhythmic implication. It’s also a lot of text, so the words will need to go by pretty fast. Furthermore, an alphabetical list of words contains its own internal rhythms and cycles: it will start with all the words beginning with ‘a’, then move to those beginning with ‘b’, and so on, creating 26 sections of different length, each with its own characteristic attack. Within each alphabetical section are up to 26 much shorter subsections – all the words beginning ‘ab’, ‘ac’, ‘ad’, and so on. Again, each of these has a particular sonic character. So the list is not an undifferentiated stream, but has a form and shape of its own. And then there are the words that leap out expeditiously for whatever reason: bum, CIA, emu. Finally, there are occasional moments where near-homonyms have the effect of almost pausing the flow altogether (cam, can; hem, hen; and … ant).

The music mirrors this mix of endless variety and predictable cycle with a tempo scheme that constantly fluctuates in great waves, as well as a pitch system that according to the composer is built upon triangular numbers, and that reminded me pleasantly of change-ringing. Oesterle is well-regarded in Canadian new music circles, and deserves to be here too.

840 series at St James, Islington

I was pleased to make it out last night for the first concert in 840’s 2015–16 series. Throughout this year and without much fanfare Alex Nikiporenko and Nicholas Peters have been building up this small series of small concerts of what I am tempted to call, in the least non-disparaging way possible, ‘small music’. Music by composers like Luiz Henrique Yudo or Laurence Crane. Music that doesn’t have any pretensions to be more than it is, that doesn’t seek to fill a space or a time outside of its own container, but that fills what it has just perfectly.

On this occasion all the music was for two or three cellos, played by Tre Voci, and every piece – except for Richard Glover’s Duo from 2012 – was newly written. Yudo, whose beautiful little sonic carvings are always a joy, was represented by CLARIFICATION, a polyphony of repeating pulses and sustained tones. Sergei Zagny brought another perfect miniature in his Studies on Rhythm BACH, written on the first five notes of the C minor scale. Timothy Cape’s NEED was a humorous look at the roles of advertising, self-promotion and anxiety in new music. Thematically it was the ‘biggest’ piece of the night, and in that respect slightly out of tune with its materials, but it raised and earned plenty of laughs. Eleanor Cully‘s tutto dietro il ponticello, as its title suggests, was played wholly behind the bridge of the three cellos, between it and the tailpiece – but if that suggested a Penderecki-esque noise-fest, what we got was a delicate study in bouncing bows and softly pinging pulses. Glover’s Duo is a quintessential study in ‘small music’, just a single perfect cadence zoomed in on and blown up with slow glissandi that drew out every tiny microtone or sonic ‘artefact’ that lurks beneath the most simple and foundational gesture in Western art music. Peters and Nikiporenko both wrote new pieces too, and I was especially taken by the latter, which seemed perfectly balanced in all directions.

This, by the way, is my new favourite programme note:

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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.