Some recent CDs

726708696122-front-coverSelf Portrait by Brooklyn composer and multimedia artist Grant Cutler (innova 961) is composed of artists improvising to recordings of themselves, the results heavy with loops, delays and textures. innova’s press release dresses this up as ‘an act of memoir, an active reimagining of the self’. I think that’s stretching a point: if that’s what these tracks are, they’re cosy, untroubled imaginings that rarely stray far from their original path. (Not what I see in my mirror, certainly.) Nevertheless, set that aside and Cutler and his musicians have made an attractive, not always predictable work of instrumental/electronic ambiance. Requires a sweet tooth, but I have one.

726708697327-front-coverIf you like this, you might also like Listening Beam Five by Crystal Mooncone (Stephen Rush, Chris Peck and Jon Moniaci; innova 973). More of a 60s, West Coast psychedelia vibe here, although washed out, exhausted, like the fade-outs to a Bitches Brew session at full scale. The instrumentarium includes Phase Maracas, Foil-o-tron, Distant Echo Flute, Float Tank Rhodes and Cistern Singing, so that should give some idea (or not).

ewr1601-03Manfred Werder’s 2003/1–3 arrive on a triple-disc set from Edition Wandelweiser Records (EWR 1601-03). 70 minutes per disc, two (performed) sounds per disc. (I emphasise performed: these seem to be studio recordings, so the huge silences in between aren’t completely silent; they’re live, not digital.) It’s a colossal, utopian extravagance, of the sort I’d rather started to miss from EWR. There is undoubtedly something ridiculous about firing up the CD player for more than hour of almost nothing (in three different versions, no less), but at the same time, there’s nothing else quite like doing so. Which is one underlying message of Werder’s work, at least: that experience trumps thought. I doubt I’ll be returning to these discs very often, but I’m absolutely certain that I will, so unique is that feeling – not something one can always say.

ewr1607-08Eva-Maria Houben’s livres d’heures, a two-disc set this time from EWR (1607/08), goes into the less abstract territory that I feel has characterised many Wandelweiser recordings of the last year or two. In particular, it foregrounds the Christian/spiritual dimension that appears to underlie the aesthetic of several Wandelweiser composers. A book of hours is an obvious choice for a style preoccupied with periodicity and the articulation of very large spans of time – see Werder, above. The difference in his case is that the periodicity is intuitive and unpredictable: thus it holds its time in a state of heightened tension; whereas Houben’s meticulously steady bell chimes and violin drones mark out a structured, and hence contemplative time. It reminds me of other large-scale religious settings, most notably Knaifel’s Agnus Dei, or even (although its language is much less bombastic) Radulescu’s Cinerum.

51zbr3xyy8l-_ss500Pick of the listening at the moment, though, is EXAUDI’s recording of Mala punica composed by their director James Weeks (Winter & Winter 910 239-2). I’ve said this a few times recently about other composers’ works, and I find myself saying it again, but this may be the best thing I’ve heard from Weeks so far. Making use of the little canonic and fan-like games that populate a lot of his music, Mala punica – interleaved on this recording with the three-part Walled Garden for instrumental ensemble – is a stunningly subtle, disarmingly simple achievement; a crystallisation of basic ideas down to the point that they transform into something else entirely. Combining the metaphor of the hortus conclusus with a setting of Song of Songs, Weeks’s piece models an exquisite tension between chaste procedure and order, and over-tumbling sensuality.

Further to these short pocket reviews, I’ve recently written a much longer consideration of Richard Barrett’s album Music for cello and electronics, with Arne Deforce and recorded for aeon. You can read that here at Music & Literature.

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Contemporary music really picking up at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore-Hall

About 18 months ago, in a review of the JACK Quartet’s Wigmore Hall Live CD, I suggested that the WH was ‘more a venue for classical recitalists than avant-garde explorers with uncompromisingly capitalised names’. I copped a little dissent on that point from the hall itself, who wanted to point out that contemporary music was a regular feature at Wigmore concerts. Strictly speaking, yes, they were right, but most of what they could point at was still very much from the conservative end of the new music spectrum.

Well, I have to say this year’s contemporary music series really has stepped things up a gear. More evidence that concert venues should be taking more risks with new music? The series continues this Saturday with a Julian Anderson day this Saturday (including a tasty-looking concert of Anderson, Abrahamsen and Sciarrino), quickly followed on Wednesday by EXAUDI (another uncompromisingly capitalised name …) presenting Gesualdo-related works from Finnissy, Schöllhorn, Fox and Gervasoni, as well as the man himself.

And there’s more in the new year. On 23 January the JACKs return to play Crawford Seeger, Trapani, Ferneyhough, Anderson and – blimey – Radulescu. But the pick for me, and the signal that something really new might be underway at Wigmore, is the venue debut of Apartment House on 4 January, in a concert that looks like this:

Laurence Crane: Sparling 2000
Christopher Fox: Memento
Peter Garland: Where beautiful feathers abound
Amnon Wolman: Dead End
Mathias Spahlinger: 128 erfüllte augenblicke
Rytis Mažulis: Canon mensurabilis
Christopher Fox: Blank
George Mačiūnas: In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti

Yeah, me too. Good times.

Cassandra Miller’s new piece for EXAUDI

A good time was had last night at EXAUDI’s concert at the Only Connect theatre. I’m writing now because I particularly enjoyed Cassandra Miller‘s new one, Guide, for eight voices.

Guide is based on a 1968 recording by the American folk singer Maria Muldaur of the well-known hymn ‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah’. In advance of receiving the score, the players were asked to familiarise themselves with the recording, and in particular with Muldaur’s distinctive vocal style. The piece itself then ran through (?apparently) a sort of quasi-canonic process that meant each singer working through the hymn’s first verse – in awareness of how Muldaur sang it – with various repetitions and other procedural things along the way. The way it was built out of layers and loops meant that something of the music’s origins, in a recorded artefact, was carried through into the form of the piece; this was an echo of a recording given the post-production treatment.

In a way. That description makes it sound sort of Reich-y, which it wasn’t at all. It was way less digital than that. And it was more than the aura of vinyl or tape, but of a tape that was loosely wound, or even unspooling. Hesitantly, I might even say it was organic.

But still with that sense of intermedia translation about it, the sense of something artificial, brought into a dialogue.

Like I say, a really, really good piece.

I also enjoyed catching up with Cassandra after the show, all of which preamble gives me an excuse to post this piece of hers for piano, played by Philip Thomas:

Reviews resurrected: EXAUDI at the Warehouse, October 2009

Resurrected because it features my first encounter with a couple of pieces on EXAUDI’s forthcoming disc for HCR – Stephen Chase’s Jandl Songs, and Claudia Molitor’s lorem ipsum. Not sure why I didn’t mention the pieces by either Gwyn Pritchard or Linda Catlin Smith at the time, and now of course I can’t remember anything about them.

Originally published on Musical Pointers.

Don’t forget the launch concert and party for EXAUDI’s CD, this Saturday, 4th May, at the Only Connect Theatre, Kings Cross.

exaudi

EXAUDI, dir. James Weeks

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmer
James Weeks: from Mala Punica
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour
Claudia Molitor: lorem ipsum

The Warehouse, London, 29 October 2009

Several of the pieces in this miscellany of special commissions and ‘must do’ rarities came across as surprisingly honest to certain choral traditions. No doubt that perception is a product of my upbringing, but that tradition and the resulting pieces sound interestingly and pleasingly English to me, right down to the strings of finger pops in Molitor’s lorem ipsum, which recalled peals of change-ringing bells. But then EXAUDI and most of the composers they performed are products of similar upbringings to mine, so perhaps it’s silly to fret over context vs content and acknowledge things for how they appeared.

The obvious exception was Agrimbau, and it’s not entirely unrelated that I found his the least satisfying piece of the evening. Instead of establishing for itself a position in critical relation to tradition it preferred to dwell overlong on a series of new music tricks and treats. The dense accompanying notes didn’t help much – the music itself didn’t seem correspondingly dense. On the contrary. Perhaps the philosophical underpinnings would reveal themselves on subsequent hearings. Another puzzle was the relationship between score (described as highly graphic, and featuring emoticons) and the sounding result (which was precisely ordered and didn’t betray any aleatoric origins). Maybe EXAUDI had undertaken a substantial act of David Tudorism in translating the graphics to conventional notation, but then, one has to ask, why the graphics in the first place? All in all, a baffling piece.

The rest were much lighter in tone. The middle movement of Hoh’s mantra:imagine was a Zen-like setting of ‘Pepsi Cola’, but it was the first movement that especially struck me, a series of dense harmonic textures, interrupted by chunks of silence, rather like Ligeti cut into large panels and pegged out on a line.

Ligeti was also recalled inthe group’s director James Weeks’s three pieces from his Mala punica. Each was constructed around canonic procedures that derived great complexity from simple materials. The result was simultaneously airier than Ligeti, but more robust and unsettling. There was a sort of dark madrigalian quality to the individual part writing too, which suggested a greater interest in the Latin texts than Ligeti ever showed in his Requiem or Lux aeterna.

The two stand-out pieces for me were those by Chase and Priestley. Chase’s six Jandl Songs belong to an in-progress series of settings of the avant-garde Austrian poet. The texts themselves are curious, experimental verses, the flavour of which Chase captured perfectly in his clean, but deceptively clever settings. It was impossible to pin down why they worked so well – an explanation sat just out of view – but work they did, extremely well.

Priestley’s Unloose to the Murmer, a sort of deconstruction of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by way of Cageian Musicircus ritual, may have had loftier ambitions – and it didn’t quite reach them as satisfyingly as Chase’s songs – but it was nevertheless a successful and revealing piece. The Orfeo extracts were chopped and tossed together to form a series of choral refrains, which each degraded in turn into aleatoric passages governed by giant sheets of manuscript covered with transparencies, on which were graphic notations for more indeterminate interpretation. The performers were distributed about the space, with a sheet each. After each refrain they removed a transparency each and the cycle began again until all the transparencies were gone, leaving a slow, underlying cantus firmus. The graphic transparencies seemed to suggest movement as well as sound, so the indeterminate sections became miniature theatre pieces. It is more complicated to describe than it was to experience: the effect was actually quite direct, yet with an element of mystery, exactly like Cage. I thought Monteverdi was a good choice for such a treatment: his sectional constructions, melodic simplicity and harmonic and rhythmic robustness mean that he can be bashed around quite a lot without losing his fundamental identity. These are qualities shared, incidentally, by many British composers you might hear at the Warehouse, for whom questions of material and its malleability are central to their aesthetic – Molitor and Weeks, in different ways, might be two more. Priestley, on this evidence, sounds like she shares this interest, and I suspect she will go far with it.

With EXAUDI, exposed

EXPOSURE_CDedb4c9234df341b66b

I’m chuffed to be hosting a couple of composer conversations at EXAUDI‘s next concert, on 4 May at the Only Connect Theatre, Cubitt Street, King’s Cross. Before the music starts I’ll be on stage talking with Matthew Shlomowitz and EXAUDI’s director James Weeks, and about midway through I’ll be hosting a roundtable discussion with Shlomowitz, Weeks, Aaron Cassidy, Stephen Chase and Claudia Molitor. A shedload of talent, moderated by a fool.

I’m not the reason you should go. You actually want to see EXAUDI themselves, who will be singing pieces by Shlomowitz, Weeks, Cassidy, Chase and Evan Johnson. They’ll also be launching their new CD, Exposure – the sixth release from Huddersfield Contemporary Recordings. I’ve been listening to it lots over the weekend, and it’s pretty special. It features pieces by Cassidy, Weeks, Chase, Molitor, Bryn Harrison, Richard Glover and Joanna Bailie. A really diverse mix, but somehow, and thanks to EXAUDI’s alchemical powers, a coherent one. Really beautiful too.

The concert should be great as well; get down to King’s Cross if you can.

Review of Chris Fox/EXAUDI: Catalogue irraisoné now online

My review of Christopher Fox’s Catalogue irraisoné, performed by EXAUDI and released on Métier, is now online at Musical Pointers:

Christopher Fox’s Catalogue irraisoné, for solo voice or vocal ensemble, teeters on the edge of music. It consists of the simplest forms almost entirely drained of content and context. Of the 12 short pieces, some are unadorned speech, some simple, nursery rhyme-like melodies, some have sparse percussion accompaniments. There are no harmonies, no expansive tunes, no rhythmic complexities, very little development.

Continue reading here.

EXAUDI at the Warehouse, reviewed

My review of EXAUDI’s recent concert at the Warehouse is now online at Musical Pointers:

Several of the pieces in this miscellany of special commissions and ‘must do’ rarities came across as surprisingly honest to certain choral traditions. No doubt that perception is a product of my upbringing, but that tradition and the resulting pieces sound interestingly and pleasingly English to me, right down to the strings of finger pops in Molitor’s Lorem ipsum, which recalled peals of change-ringing bells. But then EXAUDI and most of the composers they performed are products of similar upbringings to mine, so perhaps it’s silly to fret over context vs content and acknowledge things for how they appeared.

Continue reading here.

EXAUDI at the Warehouse, this Thursday

EXAUDI makes a rare appearance in London this week with an eight-voice programme of the newest contemporary music – much of it to be premiered at this performance. EXAUDI are a staggeringly good choir and not to be missed: if you need some persuasion, here’s what I said about their performance last year at the Spitalfields Festival.

The concert is part of Sound and Music’s The Cutting Edge series and takes place at the Warehouse, next Thursday, at 7.30pm.

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine (2007, UK premiere)
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs (2007-)
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos (2007, UK premiere)
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist (2009, world premiere)
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmur (2009)
James Weeks: from Mala Punica (2008-9)
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour (2004, UK premiere)
Claudia Molitor: Lorem ipsum (2007)

Concert details

7.30pm, Thursday 29 October 2009 The Warehouse, Theed Street, London SE1 8ST Tickets: £10 on the door or £7 online by following the ‘Book tickets’ link here: http://www.soundandmusic.org/activities/events/exaudi-exposure-09.

Exaudi, Spitalfields Festival – Punch up at a première

My review is up at Musical Pointers.

Bonus commentary on the audience interruption – quite the oddest outburst I’ve seen at a concert. Basically, Evan’s piece starts very quietly. Unfortunately, Shoreditch Church has some very creaky pews, and is susceptible to outside noise from police sirens etc, so the piece was already a little interrupted. But still, two guys started whispering to one another, pretty audibly, and the chap sat next to them knocked one of them on the arm and told him to “shush”. At which point Whisperer A starts to exclaim (at shrill volume now), “Don’t hit me! He hit me! Did you see that? Don’t you hit me!” (ad nauseam histrionicam). Whisperer B stands up, laughing, “I’m sorry, I’ve had enough of this, I’m going”. Whisperer A agrees – “He hit me!” (like you’re the one suffering here, mate). A and B exit in the manner of two-year-olds, stamping feet and slamming doors as they go.

Evan Johnson: packing more punch-ups than Stravinsky.