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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No Charles Villiers, please, we’re modernists: two Stanford CDs reviewed

541, volume 4

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Innova’s fourth annual survey of graduate composition at Stanford showcases music by Alexander Sigman, Sebastian Semper, Juan Cristóbal Cerrillo, Mauricio Rodríguez, Patricia Elizabeth Martínez and Kristian Ireland. Yes, these are essentially student pieces, and yes the recording quality isn’t absolutely professional standard – but these are some sharp compositional minds, and the performers include the legendary Ensemble SurPlus, so attention is demanded. The best pieces (and hence names to keep an eye on) are probably Sigman’s reflets/réflexions/implosions, a fragmentary, prickly stream of consciousness for alto sax, and Cerrillo’s siempre otra cosa (estación violenta), which has an unusually episodic/dramatic shape that is both surprising and rewarding. Ireland’s string quartet, clearing (I), is also pretty intense.

Mark Applebaum: The Metaphysics of Notation

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While we’re on the subject of Stanford, innova have also released a fantastic DVD documenting Mark Applebaum’s  monster graphic score/installation The Metaphysics of Notation.

Metaphysics comprises a hand-drawn graphic score, drawn across twelve 6-foot paper panels, and two hanging mobiles. It was displayed for a year at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, and during that time received 45 performances from ensembles and individual musicians (including So Percussion, Graeme Jennings, Ken Ueno, Beta Collide and Applebaum’s Stanford colleague Brian Ferneyhough).

Sensibly, innova and Applebaum have opted not to preserve one or two complete performances on this disc, but have instead gone for the more creative solution of a ‘Metaphysics Mix’, comprised of 1-minute excerpts from each of the 45 performances, each of which is accompanied by appropriate photos. It’s not a complete performance of the score, but it is a pretty decent condensation of the year-long installation (which seems to me closer to the spirit of the thing than any one performance could be). In addition, the DVD includes two scrolling animations of the score (one slow, one fast). This is hypnotically beautiful and in these animations you really do sense the possibility of a visual music.

The whole, excellent package is rounded off with a 20-minute documentary on Applebaum and the piece that includes perceptive and provocative input from several prominent musicians and musicologists. A highly recommendable record of a major project in graphic notation.

CD review: 25 Years of New York New Music

Some time ago I said that one of the best things about the American Composers Forum record label innova was its function as a publicly available archive of weird and wonderful American composition, the sort of music that no commercial label would ever touch.

25 Years of New York New Music, a 5-disc, 61-track compilation of works composed by Fellows of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) is a superb case in point. The goal, as stated in the liner notes by innova‘s Philip Blackburn and NYFA’s Cristian Amigo, is to ‘acknowledge the place of these composers in the larger narrative of American music history’, and in musical terms it seems to do this exceedingly well.

For an archival project like this, however, the quality of the documentation has to be of a high standard, and unfortunately this isn’t the case here. One thing niggles in particular: often little information is provided about the context for each piece (at minimum, its date of composition). This is essential if you want not simply to slap this stuff onto disc but to construct a coherent and structured collection of work with its own narrative shape, as Amigo and Blackburn claim to do. As soon as I heard Mary Jane Leach’s incantatory Night Blossoms, for example, I wanted to know where she sat historically in relation to the much better-known Meredith Monk. 25 years is a long time in new music, and it makes a difference whether something was composed in 1983 or 2008, unless you’re assuming a de facto, homogenous classicism (which this is anything but).

I’m not, therefore, going to try reconstruct the history that is represented on this disc, or elucidate the story it’s trying to tell. There is some loose structure applied to the five discs, in that one is clearly more jazz/improv-based, one more orchestral-based, but the overlaps are too great to declare absolute distinctions. There is a wide range of music, wide enough that it’s not possible to pin down many unifying elements. As far as they exist, they are negatives: this is (almost all) music that is anti-classical, that rejects – quite simply and usually with minimal fuss – the conventions of concert hall, standard genres, traditional ensembles. (I say almost all because in occasional cases, like Aaron Jay Kernis’s Ecstatic Meditation 4 or George Tsontakis’s Gymnopodies, the traditional tropes of classical music are still very much to the fore.) This isn’t a world of Fluxus-type agitations either: composership–or musicianship in the case of the pieces with improvisation–is highly valued, as is good taste.

Sometimes the taste is a little too good, as in the several examples of super-cute acoustic electronica. There are now albums and albums that follow this sort of decorative, sort-of-minimalist formula (some of them, indeed, may be found on innova). Alarm Will Sound’s Aphex Twin album is a high-water mark for this kind of thing (and an exception in being an album of covers not new pieces) but they are demon players drawing on outstanding source material. Very little matches up. Often it feels like a nascent genre that has substituted the courage to state something of its own for the cynicism of synthesis, crossing two trends – postminimalism and post-techno – which are themselves shadows not pillars. Cross a shadow with a shadow and you’re left with nothing.

Nevertheless, even works like David van Tieghem’s Waiting for the Gizmo No.1 or Bora Yoon’s G I F T, both of which could sit comfortably on the next Groove Armada compilation CD, have an innocence that puts all cynical thoughts to rest: innocence, in the best possible sense, is a rewarding common theme throughout all five discs. (I was going to say propose Judith Sainte Croix’s Los Pajaros Blancos de la Noche Profunda as another example, until I read in the notes that ‘Jungle imagery is used to convey quantum physics ideas … The piano gestures represent non-physical energy waves that …’ Yawn. The worst kind of verbiage, needlessly weighing down music that is deliciously feather-light on listening.)

New music fans will probably head first for the rare cuts by better-known names in this collection: interestingly, most of these (Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Meredith Monk, Eve Beglarian, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas) are women – indeed women composers are very well-represented. But don’t neglect the lesser lights – as well as those already mentioned, pieces by Iconoclast, Bruce Gremo and many others are not to be overlooked. Despite its frustrations, this is an endlessly fascinating collection that I’ll be dipping into for months to come. Someone else can do the musicology that makes sense of it all.

CD Review: Various artists: The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon (Innova)

The Art of the Virtual RythmiconBack in 1931, Henry Cowell asked Lev Termen [aka Leon Theremin] to build him a musical instrument capable of playing the sorts of complex overtones and rhythms that Cowell was working with at the time. The two of them came up with the Rhythmicon, a keyboard instrument a bit like an electric organ with a catch. Using sets of rotating optical discs inside the instrument all the keys were set up to play repeated tones, which were related in pitch and rhythm to one another according to the proportions of the overtone series. Very much a Cowell sort of idea it proved too unreliable to really take off as a concert instrument, but in 2003 American Public Media commissioned an online version for its American Mavericks website and radio show. The Virtual Rhythmicon – a greatly enhanced extrapolation of the original concept – has been online since then, and anyone can play around and submit the results to the American Mavericks archive. Mind you, I’ve had a good muck around on it and I’ve not produced anything that comes close to what’s on this album, so it’s not to be underestimated.

By the nature of the instrument, the nine tracks on The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon are all built around sustained synth tones, wave forms, pulse patterns and the like, but with a notable emotional range. Schaefer’s work is a lush meditation paradoxically titled ‘All Bombing is Terrorism’, Gosfield deftly blends buzzing sawtooth waves with sweeping cello harmonics. Philip Blackburn samples a quarter-tone piano duet by Mildred Couper to evoke the concert where both her compositions and the rhythmicon were heard for the first time, while Jeff Feddersen samples Cowell’s voice over music designed to push the limits of the virtual rhythmicon to sonic breaking point. Burtner’s two contributions are dedications to his new-born son and his parents’ 60th birthday, producing rich sound worlds that belie their origins in simple algorithms, and Viv Corringham mixes her own voice, using everyday objects as resonators, over jangly, brassy blasts from the rhythmicon.

The two final tracks step furthest from the pure overtone beats of the rhythmicon medium. Mark Eden’s ‘Cremation Science’ is a Warhol-inspired pop collage, but the real gem of the whole disc is the final track, Robert Normandeau’s awesome ‘Chorus’, dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Using sound materials intended to represent Judaism (shofar), Christianity (bells) and Islam (muezzin), it’s a brooding concrete slab of a work in which menace, frustration, scratchy anxiety and spiritual profundity are all held in balance for a draining 15 minutes. No one would blame you for buying the CD for this piece alone – and you’d be in luck because the rest of the disc isn’t far behind in interest.

Download “Spectral for 0” (mp3)
from “The Art of the Virtual Rythmicon”
by Matthew Burtner
Innova Recordings

More On This Album

CD Review: TJ Norris, various artists: triMix (Innova)

TrimixPart remix series, part gallery installation, part soundtrack, part DVD, this is kind of a tricky release to trace a path through, but here’s how the story goes: Portland-based artist TJ Norris puts together a 3-part series of installation under the umbrella name Tribryd, featuring photographs of derelict, abandoned and uninhabited spaces around the city (see some here). One theme of the Tribryd installations is the ever-shifting archaeology of the urban landscape. As part of his strategy for taking the pictures, Norris asks a number of musicians to write soundtracks for him to listen to whilst photographing. The pictures are taken and the installations put together, featuring as a key component new remixes of the original soundtracks. On top of this, the exhibitions also feature new video works by artists such as Sue Costabile and Ryan Jeffery using, if you still follow, several of the originally-commissioned soundtracks.

What you get on this two-disc release is a CD of the remixed tracks that were used in the installations and a DVD with four video works using the original soundtrack material. Norris’s own work appears at the end of the DVD as a swift slideshow survey of one of the Tribryd exhibitions. Although this recording is Norris’s project, he is foregrounding the efforts of his collaborators as something independent from the artworks with which they were so closely entwined. As you unpeel the layers of collaboration you hear echoes of Norris’s visual record of urban change. Many of his photos are of graffiti tags, stencils or posted bills, images that have authors themselves, and are often piled on top of one another, or juxtaposed by Norris in diptychs. It becomes impossible to say who did what, or what that ‘what’ is any more. Authorship and material detach and float freely, leaving you instead with the trace of steps taken through a series of artistic psyches.

The result might have been a plateau of dull compromise, but triMix really works as something in itself because of the variety of musical responses it has compiled, from post-melancholy guitar to minimalist noise washes. Although several tracks are strikingly beautiful it’s not an album to leave on while you do the washing up; but a closely attended journey through its many facets shows this to be a very successful sonic artwork in its own right.

Download “Continuum” (mp3)
from “Trimix”
by Nobukazu Takemura – after Scanner
Innova Recordings

More On This Album

More Innova releases reviewed

Yoav Gal and Yael Kanarek: Bit by bit, cell by cell [info]

Bit By Bit, Cell By Cell: music for soprano & Atari 800XLTaking his cue from the hyperlinked, hyperreal digital landscapes of Yael Kanarek’s WorldofAwe, Yoav Gal constructs 11 sonic typographies from an old Atari 800XL, the voice of soprano Sarah Rivkins, and some alert sounds borrowed from Apple. Repeating layers of samples are deposited on top of one another until out of the cumulative weight are forced verdant valleys and hard mountain ranges. The texture is at once enveloping water and resistant granite. Intended originally for choreography – a sample video is included on this enhanced CD – it is effective, music of physical effect demanding a physical response.

Gal’s compositional technique borrows much from medieval polyphony: vocal samples stretched inside the Atari across an inhuman tessitura create possibilities for refined mensural canons, as well as a curious human-nonhuman chorus effect that can be melody, accompaniment and sonic environment all at once.

It is in this world that the Traveller of WoA finds herself in pursuit of an elusive treasure. Her journal narrates her experiences in this mysterious world; she also uses it to set down letters to an anonymous and absent lover. WoA is set in a hinterland that is both sunset and sunrise; and this is also how she comes to sign the letters. It soon becomes apparent that dusk/dawn is not the only duality that has been obliterated, as voice becomes sound, organic becomes digital, Traveller becomes landscape. It is no longer clear in this hexadecimal hallucination who these letters are from, or who they are to. In the end, as the Traveller gives herself up, bit by bit, cell by cell, to the rapture of digital oblivion, she perhaps discovers that after all, she is also the treasure she has been searching for.

It’s fairly high-concept stuff – and you can include the low-tech approach in that equation – but perfectly accessible and often quite beautiful for it.

Download “Grid” (mp3)
from “Bit By Bit, Cell By Cell: music for soprano & Atari 800XL”
by Yoav Gal & Yael Kanarek
Innova Recordings

More On This Album


Harry Partch: Enclosure 7 [info]

This DVD, the culminating part of Philip Blackburn’s series of Partch releases for Innova, is something special. It features Stephen Pouliot’s classic 1972 documentary on Partch, The Dreamer that Remains, a remastered 1971 film of Partch’s magnum opus Delusion of the Fury (with excellent sound), a 40-minute slideshow accompanying the ‘bonus album’ of Partch describing his instruments (a recording that accompanied some of the original boxsets of Delusion of the Fury), extracts from a 1960 performance of Revelation in the Courthouse Park, and a Dreamer outtake in which Partch rants against insensitive reviewers, makes some rose petal jam, and does a strange little dance. If you have any real interest in American music, unusual music, instrument manufacture, music theatre, the hobo lifstyle or jam recipes there is no good reason why you shouldn’t buy this DVD.

Innova.mu – recent releases reviewed

A short while ago, the lovely people at Innova sent me a package – four CDs and one DVD – which I said I would review here. In the end, I’m very pleased with my side of things – there’s something to enjoy in all five items, and two or three of them will doubtless find their way into regular rotation. But then from a label of Innova’s quality you wouldn’t expect much less.

Here are the first three of those five reviews, with two more to come next week.

Mark Applebaum: Asylum (Innova 666) [info]

AsylumA jazz pianist and a builder of junkyard electro-acoustic instruments as well as a former composition pupil of Brian Ferneyhough, Mark Applebaum brings out the carnival beneath complexity’s surfaces. The excellent opening track, The Blue Cloak, demonstrates precisely this bi-polarity. It was inspired by Breughel’s ‘teaming figure’ painting Netherlandish Proverbs, a typical partly comic, partly disturbing tableaux of characters who illustrate in their bizarre daily rituals a total of 100 proverbs and sayings. The music, led by a substantial partly-improvised part for Applebaum’s found object sound sculpture the ‘mouseketier’, scurries and scatters itself about the room, sounding just like the Tom and Jerry score Ferneyhough himself may yet write.

A serious-comic schizophrenia animates other works on this CD. DNA explores the notion of ‘neuromuscular economy’, whereby the virtuosity of a densely notated guitar solo is undermined as essentially the same four lines of music are looped round and round, detuning as they go. The percussion duet Go, Dog. Go! follows an uexpected route to rich rhythmic complexity, using rock and pop grooves (Led Zeppelin, James Brown, the Spice Girls) played at their original speeds, but stripped of all timbre, pitch and lyrics. It takes a keen ear to hear most of these for what they are, but the rhythmic diversity that results quashes any expectation of 4/4 monotony.

The record’s title work turns such contradictory characteristics to more serious intent. It is scored for instrumental nonet and a theatrical percussion soloist, who is the subject of 22 mental disorders that play out in the piece’s 5 movements, the surrounding ensemble functioning periodically as the superego or a council of elders sitting in judgement. As with the rest of the CD, it is musically convincing, but for such a theatrical work (in the third movement, for example, the percussionist enacts a detailed series of Dadaist rituals that culminate in the bursting of a ballon in which is concealed the triangle beater to be used to begin the fourth movement) it is of course not possible to gauge fully the work’s effect. However, with the aid of sleevenotes, enough of the assorted manias comes through; overall this is another fine record from a consistently interesting composer.

Download “Go, Dog, Go!” (mp3)
from “Asylum”
by Mark Applebaum
Innova Recordings

Judy Dunaway: Mother of Balloon Music (Innova, 648) [info]

Mother of Balloon MusicAs the world’s first balloon virtuoso, Judy Dunaway has certainly found herself a niche. But from her wide-ranging sleevenotes, which take in the oppressive power structures of the West, the Church’s repression of women, Fluxus and the avant garde, instrumental fetishism, and environmental catastrophe, it is clear that this is a niche she finds extremely powerful and rich in broader associations: “Have we inadvertently turned global blood into a party favour?” she asks. Although the comic leeches in slightly around the edges (“The balloon does not lend itself to tonal music,” she notes at one point), this is intensely serious music, focussing lengthy stretches to the exploration of restricted aspects of balloon sound production – balloon as orb-shaped string, balloon as resonator, balloon as reed instrument.

On first listen the range of sounds is remarkable, and fully vindicates Dunaway’s devotion to her medium. However, rather a lot of this CD is etude-like – even those pieces that aren’t Etudes – and this diminishes the sustained effect of the album. In the two Etudes for balloon and violin, and the pieces For Balloon And String Quartet and For Bass Koto With Balloons, the instrumental parts are closely tied to Dunaway’s balloons – either closely mirroring them in sound and line, or succumbing to their influence as disruptive obstacle to performance (in the koto piece, balloons are wedged under the strings as unreliable substitutes for bridges). On repeated listenings I longed for a greater diversity of sounds and musical gestures; as they are, individual tracks fade into a smartly conceived, brilliantly executed monochrome.

The two works involving electronics – The Balloon Factory and The Rubber Forest – are the most successful, and also the two in which the will of the balloon is least exerted upon its companion instruments. In these, balloon improvisations are used as a sound source that is then electronically processed in real time. The processing allows for sounds and textures to emerge that although rooted in rubber take on their own sonic lives. The two are the most recent tracks, which promises well for the future: Dunaway has here introduced us to her unique and potentially powerful voice; now we wait to see where it takes her.

Download “Etude No. 1 for Balloon And Violin” (mp3)
from “Mother of Balloon Music”
by Judy Dunaway
Innova Recordings

UPDATE: Judy Dunaway has written to me to let me know that this isn’t in fact her first album – Balloon Music came out on CRI in 1998, and Shar was released on Outer Realm in 2002.
Alexandra Gardner: Luminoso (Innova, 662) [info]

LuminosoMade up of works composed during a two-year spell as visiting composer at the IUA/Phonos Foundation in Barcelona, Alexandra Gardner’s Lumínoso is an album of warm light and cool evening breezes. All six tracks are for soloists and electronics, and several of the performers here were Gardner’s Spanish colleagues. From the sensitivity with which their performances have been balanced against the electronic aspects of the pieces, one can guess that their playing was no small inspiration for the composer.

The six tracks are characterised overall by a fluid dynamic between solo line and rich electro-acoustic texture. In some tracks the electronics might first provide a sonic penumbra around the soloist, then work with it closely, sampling and layering multi-track polyphonies. Transitions are treated so seamlessly it becomes impossible to tell where one mode begins and the other ends; untangling this becomes your way into glittering spaces within the music. In other tracks, rather than teasing out contrasts from a single material source, acoustic instrument and electronics operate in open, confrontational dialogue.

The strength of Gardner’s often spellbinding music on this CD is its thoughtful composition. You sense at each turn that everything has been considered and weighed before proceeding, and that soloist and electronics are ultimately in the service of a compositional form, rather than a loosely-imagined concept.

Trusting in these frameworks, Gardner can allow her soloists – who all play with considerable generosity of expression – the space to interpret; more mysteriously, she draws similarly arresting performances from her software and samplers too. Throughout, the electronics have a hands-on-the-controls live performance feel to them, and it is this tactility that makes this such a convincing album.

Download “Luminoso” (mp3)
from “Luminoso”
by Alexandra Gardner
Innova Recordings