Wandelweiser’s Minnesota debut

Word from Crow With No Mouth promotions that the Wandelweiser group will be making its Minnesota concert debut later this month. Here are the details from the event blog:

our wandelweiser festival program will consist of the premiere of nine new pieces, written by nine composers integral to the wandelweiser collective, especially for our weekend. this is likely the largest such contribution to a wandelweiser event in the U.S., and we are excited beyond measure at this privilege.

the composers contributing pieces are: Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Radu Malfatti, Manfred Werder, Eva-Maria Houben, Stefan Thut, Dante Boon, Johnny Chang and Michael Pisaro.

the ensemble:

jürg frey (clarinet)
katie porter (bass clarinet / clarinet)
erik carlson (violin)
greg stuart (portable or light percussion, gravity and friction (bowing), electronics)
nomi epstein (piano, inside piano, varia)
dante boon (piano)
michael pisaro (electric guitar, sine tones)

composer eva-maria houben will be attending the concerts.


the concert schedule is as follows:

saturday september 27th ~  concerts at 4 and 8 p.m. (doors at 3:30 and 7:30)

sunday september 28 ~ concert at 1 p.m.(doors at 12:30)

please note: the concerts will start at their scheduled time; due to the very quiet nature of the music, late admission will likely mean no admission until a break in the program.

admission is $10 per concert, pay at the door.

program details for the nine pieces receiving their premiere to follow.

all events at studio z in lowertown st. paul; directions here.


the wandelweiser festival is made possible by the generous support of an anonymous donor, and support by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia

More information about the concerts here.

Talking at the RNCM

On 1st October I’m going to be presenting as part of the RNCM’s Research Forum series. Mine is the first of this year’s series, and I’m going in big with an attempt to untangle the mess that it is contemporary music history.  If you’re in or around Manchester and fancy a sneak preview of the book, this is your chance.

Talks start at 5.15pm in the RNCM lecture theatre, last about 45 minutes with plenty of discussion afterwards, and are open to the public. Full details are here.

We Break Strings Kickstarter campaign

Earlier in the summer I was approached by the writer Thom Andrewes to be one of a number of interviewees for a new book on London’s alternative classical music scene, to be published to mark the 10th anniversary of Nonclassical.

It was fun to do, and the book, called We Break Strings, includes some terrific photos by Dimitri Djuric. (There’s one of them above.) It’s due to come out later this autumn. I’ve aired some differences of opinion with Gabriel Prokofiev here recently, but I’m all for musical diversity and was there at some of the very first NonC gigs. And as a record of a moment, of a short and exciting and rapidly changing time, I believe this will be a fascinating and valuable book.

Anyway, there’s a Kickstarter campaign to get the final printing costs together to produce what is promised to be a high quality tome, of the sort that is commonplace for the visual arts but all too rare for music. You can back it here for the next four weeks.

The book will be launched in October, accompanied by a week-long exhibition and residency at the Red Gallery in Shoreditch from 20th October. I’ll be there on the 23rd as part of a pre-concert panel discussion. More details on that to follow nearer the time.

Włodzimierz Kotoński, 1925–2014

Sad news from Adrian Thomas that the Polish composer Włodzimierz Kotoński has died, aged 89.

Along with Jan Krenz (b.1926) and Bogusław Schaeffer (b.1929), Kotoński was the last major surviving Polish composer born before 1930.  He was renowned as a composition teacher at the Music Academy in Warsaw and his roster of pupils reads like a list of many of the most significant Polish composers born after World War II, including Krzysztof Knittel (b.1947), Stanisław Krupowicz (b.1952), Paweł Szymański and Tadeusz Wielecki (b.1954), Hanna Kulenty (b.1961) and Paweł Mykietyn (b.1971).  Kotoński also wrote a number of reference books: Percussion Instruments in the Modern Orchestra (1963), Electronic Music (1989) and Lexicon of Contemporary Percussion (1999).

Only a couple of months ago I wrote some words here on one of the few Kotoński discs available and the extraordinary Aeolian Harp of 1973. Adrian’s post indicates this disc is already out of print, but here’s hoping more of Kotoński’s remarkable music will now make it, belatedly, to disc.

Jones-Bulley – Living Symphonies

Last month I visited the studio of James Bulley and Daniel Jones in southeast London. I’d heard about their Living Symphonies project and James had invited me to come and have a look behind the scenes.

Living Symphonies is an elaborate piece of acoustic ecology/data art/environmental installation that has been presented in three UK forests this summer, and completes its tour this week at the Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent.

Actually, the invitation came because after seeing the work’s promo video I’d posted a rather harsh reaction on Twitter; James, very kindly, approached me to set the record straight about what he and Dan were trying to do.

So I drove over to New Cross on a sweltering hot day, pushed the buzzer on the door and got given the tour of the Jones/Bulley studio, which doubles as their flat. Two rooms are completely given over to Living Symphonies: one is the studio itself, the second contains a mock-up of the 24-channel sound system that comprises the installation, and is used for testing and tweaking the model. Apart from a mixing desk and computer, and 24 speakers resting on the floor and hanging from the ceiling it is empty. The rest of the flat is full of remnants of the duo’s previous collaborations – I spotted the radios from Radio Reconstructions and the suspended speaker cones from Maelstrom.

There are two main components to Living Symphonies, which nicely complement the duo’s relative specialisms (James is a composer; Dan has a background in biology and data modelling). First is a data model of the woodland space in which the work is to be installed. This includes models for every species that lives within or passes through the space. All the different tree species are included. So are the birds, the hedgehogs, mice and squirrels. So are the moss and fungi. So are the worms, spiders and insects. Each species is assigned four different states – so a bird might be perching, flying, singing or feeding; a tree might be drawing up water, photosynthesising, etc. Each state is governed by probabilities relating to that species’ typical behaviour, which are themselves governed by data regarding the climate (rainfall, temperature, wind speed/direction, humidity) and time of day or night at that moment.

All of that creates a 3D virtual model of the woodland space itself. It’s not tracking what’s actually happening – although the climate and time data is fed live into the system – but it is generating a good approximation of what could happen in that spot at that time. It gets very detailed: the virtual squirrel, for example, is assigned a particular visual field. If it hasn’t eaten in a while, and in the course of its wandering around a pine tree comes into view, it will go over to the tree, climb it, and start to eat. When it rains, the mammals and birds head for shelter, and the moss, plants and worms become much more active.

There are hundreds of states in all, and each is composed as a short motif which is recorded and stored in Ableton. As life in the virtual forest unfolds, the relevant musical motifs are triggered. What’s more, they are distributed around the 3D space, so a bird can fly overhead from one corner to another, the trees sound from where they are standing, and so on. Listening to it in the imperfect space of Jones and Bulley’s front room it was still possible to get a strong sense of how the sounds model the physical presence and activity of the forest.

If it went this far, Living Symphonies would be an impressive bit of labour, but limited in its scope as an artwork, and dubious as a piece of acoustic ecology. Modelling a forest soundscape is not the same as modelling the interactions and interdependencies of the species within that space that make it what it is. Plonking a 24-channel sound system into a forest is not very environmentally senstive, or in itself aesthetically interesting.

So I was interested to hear more about the particularly compositional process behind the work. How had James come up with his materials? How did they relate to each other?

The compositional relationships reflect the ecological ones between species. Simply put, although each species state has its own motif, as it were, the presence of another species will alter that motif in a particular way. Partly this is to maintain musical order and balance (so the notes available to a particular motif might change to avoid dissonant clashes) and partly to mimic the behaviour of the natural world.

The motifs themselves are not meant to mimic the states or species that they are assigned to – no flutey twiddles for the finches, and how do you compose the sound of moss anyway. But they do reflect something of that species’ behaviour or significance to the environment, and at times the choices made have been guided by certain evocations; the use of harps for some species, for example.

Overall, the guiding principle is how well it sounds: is it balanced, is anything too dominant, is the mood right? On this last point, I was interested to know why is it basically all tonal and, well, nice? James’s answer was that part of what makes up the ecological space, as the listener perceives it, is the listener themselves, with their own collection of memories, associations, expectations, and tastes. By making the music more approachable – or stopping it from being too forbidding – it was possible to access that personal memory space and incorporate it within the overall ecology. To reinforce his point, he pointed to a copy of Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest, a beautiful travelogue/study/fiction of forests and fairytales. All of that is as much part of what forests are (and of how they sound to us) as the natural species that are living there. So while Jones and Bulley aren’t aiming to make something that sounds all gothic or fairy-like, our human associations with that are part of the soundscape.

It’s an interesting idea, although I’m not certain it’s not also a fudge. Another reason for making it sound approachable is that you want a non-specialist audience to come and stay to listen. Nevertheless, I listened to the mock-up for a while and it is clear that something sophisticated and multi-layered has been put together. I’ll be taking my toddler son to Bedgebury to hear what it all sounds like for real.

Andriessen’s De Staat coming to Peckham

Too much work, school holidays, home building work going on, don’t think I’m going to get time to do a proper Secret Music for August. But it would be remiss of me if I didn’t draw your attention at least to the return of the Multi-Story Orchestra to Peckham Car Park on 7 and 8 August for performances of Louis Andriessen’s De Staat.

Get your tickets here:


Digital classicism

Theory (no doubt not original):

1. We have entered a new classical era, in which the pervasive use and influence of metrics, best practices, interoperability, regulation and so on (consequences of our particular technological-economic-legal moment) have defined standards of formal “perfection” to which practitioners currently find themselves beholden. I’m thinking particularly in terms of architecture (legal regulations, circulation, energy usage, sustainability), but  the same may also be said of many branches of film, television, design, literature, popular music and so on. Formulae and algorithms are central to the process. So is the consensus provided by digital checking tools, or sourced from the digital crowd.


2. Art music, perhaps because of its time-based nature, perhaps because of its preference for acoustic instrumentation and analogue practices of creation and distribution, perhaps because of its fundamentally ephemeral, non-commercial nature, is not subject to these pressures.


3. But at the same time perhaps it is. Perhaps I’m romanticising it.

4. What would that music be like?

Contemporary Notation Project: Michael Baldwin

It gives me great pleasure to welcome Michael Baldwin as the Rambler’s first ever guest poster. Michael is an American artist currently living in Huddersfield, who works around the medium of sound, specifically in contemporary concert-hall music performance contexts. In his words, he is ‘primarily invested in examining the margins of musical performance practice through foregrounding non-sonic aspects of performance, with an emphasis on physical mannerisms/movement and conditions of body-instrument transaction.’ I’m always interested in margins, as well as matters of musical performance and transmedial coding of information, so I was very happy when Michael offered to write a post for the Contemporary Notation Project explaining his use of video as a notational practice.

If you are a composer with an interesting or unusual notational practice, and you would like to contribute a short post on your work, please get in touch.

As a contribution to this series I offer a recent trio of mine, this is not natural,for double bass, piano and horn. In line with my interest in ‘physical mannerisms/movements and conditions of body-instrument transaction’, a live performance of this is not natural lays bare a rate-of-movement relationship between musicians’ bodies and their musical instruments.

this is not natural – performers: Corey Klein [Horn]; Pieter Lenaerts [double bass]; Tomoko Honda [piano]

The observer of this is not natural is presented with the original raw material of the piece in the first 15 seconds – material that for the remainder of the piece is subjected to temporal, technological and compositional applications of transformation. From these first 15 seconds, the parameter of performance I am most interested in is movement – in particular, musical-instrument influenced physical movement.[1] This parameter, its transformation and, in turn, the remainder of the piece, brings me to the heart of my contribution here.

this is not natural works with video-graphic notation where the production process is important and sequential.

Production process:

  • Initial collaboration with musicians
    • Determination of what physical and sonic elements are deployable at different rates of movement
  • Original 15-second choreography taught to trio
  • A variant version of original choreography taught to trio and video-recorded
    • Only two differences between original choreography and variant version:
      • Performers instructed to direct their line of vision away from each other towards a personal laptop screen
      • Performers physically provoked by a sonic stimulus resulting in disengagement of line-of-vision focus and an attendant facial expression resembling shock
  • Variant version video-recorded from different perspectives and edited to show most important angle for a performer at a given time.
  • Three videos made, with one for each performer
  • Each edited video-recording treated as an object subject to technological alteration through time-stretching
    • Videos stretched from 15 seconds to 9 minutes resulting in dramatically slower rates of physical movement[2]

Variant version of original choreography

Individual video-score (piano)

Here are the scores for horn and double bass. Blue shading in the horn part is indicative of action taking place in or around the mouth.

In performance, the musicians enact the original 15 seconds of raw material from memory and subsequently turn their gaze towards their laptop screen where they continue by performing from their video-score for the remainder of the piece. What the observer is presented with then is in many ways an ambiguous repetition. The repetition is ambiguous in that it at times appears to be a direct repetition of the source material, and at other times either seems to be, or is, a clear departure from the first 15 seconds of material. My own experience of the piece, on a structural level, is one of constantly flickering back and forth in my mind between two modalities of performance-observation (looking and listening) relative to the original presentation of performance and the transformed version of performance, scanning for similarities and differences as they fit within the expectations setup by the initial 15-second framing of material.

Video-scores here are a mixture of descriptive and prescriptive notation that temporally (without recourse to presentation of past or future actions) delineate how a performer moves through space. Performers are confronted with slow-motion video of themselves, which they are instructed to mirror as accurately as possible, effectively embodying technologically distorted versions of themselves.[3] Importantly, this embodiment is only possible through a constant mediation between the performers’ kinesthetic knowledge of how these slow-motion movements feel in real-time (or learned-time). Performers are not simply miming their temporally stretched selves located in the video-scores. Instead, they are always reading – always in dialogue with how they know to move, how they are being shown to move, and how they remember moving.[4]

In my estimation, the presentation of the video-score (and the attendant presence of laptops to display the scores) draws considerable attention in the performers’ minds to body-instrument movement, and attention from the audience towards how musicians move and how they are directed to move – in this case through what can, at times, seem an eerie (or at least distance-inducing) technological means. By shifting the focus towards the arenas of musical movement and human-score interfaces, a resultant affect of ‘making the familiar strange’ (a well-trod artistic device) is manifest. This affect has marked repercussions on not only the atmosphere of the concert-hall, but also casts performative shadows on the pieces before and after.[5] As I perceive it, the piece invites the observer to reassess both retroactively and prospectively the conditions of performance. In other words, the piece and its affect(s) palpably extend well beyond the frame of the piece and begin to seep into an audience’s perception of the surrounding performance context.

this is not natural marks my first exploration into using video-scores as a notational medium, and will likely be a mode of performance-information dissemination in future pieces. Other pieces of mine have used alternative scores/notations such as audio-scores, picture-scores and mimetic/human-scores. For readers interested in these pieces, more information can be found throughout my website.


[1] Bodily movements informed by transactions and mediations between musicians and their instrument(s) of performance.

[2] One will notice that the degree of temporal stretch is not constant throughout. There are portions that have been warped faster or slower (with the end coming to a complete stand-still). These alterations of temporal stretching are a result of both practical (physically possible) and aesthetic/compositional considerations.

[3] On this point I suggest watching both Renée Lear’s Renée Taking a Sip of Water (Human and Video in Motion) and, with a less transhumanist tone, Bill Viola’s Quintet of the Astonished.

[4] Although the notation is focused primarily on movement, it is worth noting there are parameters of movement that are not fully accounted for in the video-scores presented here, the most significant of which is amount of force to be applied across the space of movement. In this regard, my video-scores are an incomplete medium towards instructing performance, cannot be engaged on its own (without, I’d argue, faulty extrapolation), and is dependent on the embodied kinesthetic knowledge described above.

[5] Here I am thinking of Michael Chekhov’s notions of atmospheres. Chekhov describes groups of people and the places people occupy (spaces) as having objective atmospheres and that no two distinct atmospheres can co-exist long before one either takes over as dominant or the disparate atmospheres synthesize into one. I would identify three basic elements within a concert-hall setting: the hall itself, the audience (with their cultural and experiential background), and the event/performance staged. What I’d like to propose here is that the atmosphere exuded by this is not natural has the effect of silencing the audience’s and concert-hall’s emanating atmospheric energies, drawing an observer further into the piece’s inner logic and bringing under careful consideration both the spectacle of the event and the sonic byproducts of said spectacle. See Michael Chekhov, To the Actor (Routledge, 2002): 47-62.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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