Richard Barrett and others: binary systems (strange strings)

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:

Bastard Assignments 2: Lockdown Jams

Bastard Assignments 2: Lockdown Jams

‘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.

Lockdown Jams will be continuing for a while yet, like everything else. Works by Lea Anderson, Thick and Tight and Elaine Mitchener are in process at the moment and will be available on the Bastard Assignments website, or through their YouTube channel in the coming weeks.

[STOP PRESS: Woking, by Thick and Tight, went online just after this piece was written. More Streetview, and then a vicious twist … You don’t want to miss this one.]

Playlists for the Long Distancing 6

Playlists for the Long Distancing 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restarting, tentatively

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performers:

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

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

John McGuire’s dynamic stases

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

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

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

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

Altered Space in Altered Times

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

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

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

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

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

Playlists for the Long Distancing 4

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

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

Playlists for the Long Distancing 3

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

For this weekend’s listening, I’ve collected together the (small but growing) number of composer-chronology playlists I have been compiling over the last six months or so. So far each of these has been created in response to a piece of writing on my desk related to that composer, but I have a couple more partly ready that don’t relate to anything much yet; I’ll add them to this post in due course.

Richard Barrett

George Benjamin

Oliver Knussen

Liza Lim

Original post here. This list now includes Axis Mundi for bassoon, and the extraordinary Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, from this newly released and essential CD.

Luigi Nono

Original post here.

I’ve also added a new playlist to this collection, for Krzysztof Penderecki, who died last weekend. Judge for yourselves the degree to which his later (post-1977) style was prefigured in his earlier works, or not. It’s a chance, too, to listen to some of his overlooked very late works, which exhibit a simplicity and clarity rarely encountered in his earlier music. Missing from the list – because recordings aren’t available – are the operas, the early electronic works and a handful of occasional pieces. I haven’t bothered to include many of the arrangements that Penderecki made of his own music.

 

Krzysztof Penderecki, 1933–2020

I heard the news about the death of the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki yesterday evening. He was 86, and although one of his carers had recently been diagnosed with Covid-19, there was no suggestion that his death was related. He had been ill for a long time.

Penderecki’s music was once very close to me. A couple of decades ago, when I was contemplating starting a PhD, his name emerged, along with those of Kurtág (whose music I had already studied for my masters thesis), Górecki (subject of an ardent youthful passion), and Ligeti as a possible case study for a wider investigation into East European new music during the Cold War. In the end, it was Ligeti and Penderecki who formed the two pillars of my dissertation, with numerous of their Polish and Hungarian colleagues clustering (ahem) around for support. I collected countless reviews of Penderecki’s music in British journals and newspapers; I wrote a substantial analysis of the St Luke Passion, tying its particular soteriology to a quasi-Schenkerian analysis of its pitch centres (including a novel explanation for that work’s outlandish E major ending, one that probably doesn’t bear all the weight it needs to, but felt satisfying at the time). I wrote a less satisfying analysis of Anaklasis too, although that didn’t make the final cut post-viva. St Luke in particular is a work I lived with for several years and although I can’t say I ever loved it wholeheartedly – although I found that you could probe very deeply into its construction, it never quite rewarded those investigations with the sense of a revelation gained – it was nevertheless very important to me. And when I had the (now rare) opportunity to experience the piece live for the first time, a couple of years later, at Canterbury Cathedral, it was an unexpectedly moving experience. There was a great sense of personal fulfilment, but the work too made a much greater impression on me in the flesh than I had anticipated. That ending, by the way, makes so much more sense live than any recording possibly could.

So moved was I that on my way home I phoned the arts desks of every paper, asking if they would like a review. None of them did, although I was eventually able to place something in the very conservative magazine Musical Opinion, where it was completely out of place and probably barely read (I gave it away, too). For its concision it remains one of my favourite pieces of writing. I reproduce it below.

Because of my PhD, Penderecki has shadowed my career ever since. Some of my first BBC programme notes were on his music. My first pre-concert talk was at the Barbican, on the occasion of the UK premiere of his Eighth Symphony, a sort of eco-aware Pastoral Symphony on the subject of loss and environmental destruction. The Eighth is a work before its time in some ways, although in Penderecki’s hands one human catastrophe was much the same as any other. It is one of his better late works, I believe, but there’s little in the music that distinguishes its themes from many other pieces of his.

Yesterday, as I thought about it for the first time in a while, Penderecki’s music felt very distant from me. I clicked through some tracks on Spotify to add to my Twitter response: surely a composer so preoccupied with death would have something appropriate to say at this point? The best I could come up with was the Lacrimosa from the patchy, but occasionally inspired Polish Requiem.

I think part of the problem is the morbidity of Penderecki’s music. Those deep, mumbling choirs, portentous cries and clanging gongs, tearing strings, and lamenting, descending chromaticisms, leave no room for redemption and light (even in the St Luke Passion, where salvation is supposedly the driving force of the entire work). The sonic and emotional spaces of Penderecki’s music always seem to be collapsing inwards and downwards. It is, when it is at its best – in Threnody, the Dies Irae, Utrenja, and the First Symphony – powerful stuff; some of the most emo music in the classical canon. But it is not suited to all times: the death of its composer apparently one of them; the unfolding Covid-19 crisis perhaps another.

I wonder what piece Penderecki would have written about all this, in a year or two’s time, had he had the chance to? No doubt he would have done: he was never afraid to tackle a big subject. Listening to his music now, though, as I am, it feels just a little close to the bone; and also, missing the curious mix of anxiety, passivity, intimacy and remoteness that seems to characterise the Covid-19 experience (for those of us fortunate enough to have so far avoided its worst effects). What we crave are open spaces not infected air and indoor surfaces; whispers and closeness not shouts across the void. Penderecki’s music spoke to and of a particular time. But maybe not this one.

Incidentally, Keith Potter was my supervisor for that PhD. I am proud to see that he was also the Guardian‘s chosen obituary writer for this occasion.

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Penderecki

Canterbury Cathedral

The Eastern Bloc revolutions of 1989 were about culture as much as politics. Penderecki, Poland’s musical memorialist, played his part in the 1980s, but it is still the cult success of his St Luke Passion of 1966 that exemplifies his knack of combining religious awe, musical freedom and political stridency. This giant oratorio has become a much rarer bird since its first performance in Münster and this revival, conducted by the composer in the sort of space for which it was first written, attracted a capacity audience to Canterbury.

It was not without risk, however. St Luke’s eclectic mix of pseudo-chant and avant-gardist noise has long attracted controversy, its religious fervour can seem anachronistic, and the pacing suffers badly in slow, indulgent performances. Which way would Penderecki’s conducting instincts pull him? Within moments the prospects were good, as the Polish orchestra unleashed an overwhelming, almost profanely sensual bass. Their sonorous power did not waver until the shattering E major conclusion 90 minutes later. They were matched in commitment by the combined choirs and, in particular, Jerzy Trela, whose spoken Evangelist was easily the most heated I’ve heard.

Has St Luke stood the test of time? Its dissident impact is now irrelevant and its religious symbolism seems crude. But although it was an important precursor to the late 20th century’s revival of large-scale religious compositions – from Górecki to Golijov – it is mercifully free of cheap platitudes. It is a deeply flawed piece, but this performance was the most convincing argument in its favour one could imagine.

Playlists for the Long Distancing 2

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m going to be revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

The second of my weekly playlists was a real monster when I first posted it in 2012. After updating it this week it has more than doubled in length, to a whopping 63 hours.

This is Mode Records‘ ongoing Complete John Cage Edition, which now extends to more than 50 volumes. Not everything in that series is in the following playlist – some volumes have been released on vinyl only, or as DVDs – but the list is currently as comprehensive as it can be.

Now, much as I love Cage’s music, I don’t expect anyone to listen to this list in its entirety. Rather, I place it here as a testament to Mode’s remarkable achievement in sustaining this edition. Think of this playlist as a sampler, and a reason to buy the original recordings from Mode themselves.

This is also a good time to mention that Mode – who have been releasing exemplary recordings of new music for thirty-five years – are in desperate need of funds in order to continue. You can find their fundraising page here. The good news is that if they reach their target of $9,500 dollars, this will be matched with a further $10,000 by the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation. The bad news is that this total must be reached by the end of March, just a few days from now. However, they are less than $2,000 dollars short of this target, so please give generously if you can. With new music already so stretched in the current climate, it would be wonderful if we could save something too.