Resilient Music

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Listening to James Weeks’s recent CD Signs of Occupation (métier msv 28559) against the backdrop of the last few days, I find myself drawn to its sheer robustness as much as anything else. In sombre moments, I sometimes imagine what art, what music, would be left in the instance of a Station Eleven-type apocaplyse, and I take great comfort in the fact that much of what I love would or could survive, more or less indefinitely. Not everything, of course. All music recorded on electronic media would – ironically – become ephemeral, as the fuel ran out and the generators wound down, or were conserved for light and heat. Orchestral and large ensemble music – and opera – also fade through impracticality, or become radically transformed. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a travelling band of actors and musicians cross a plague-ravaged North America, putting on scratch performances of Shakespeare at settlements on the road, and I can imagine versions of Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute surviving in such circumstances.

But the music with the most fighting chance would be that which made the least demands on resources: small ensembles, simple, portable instruments (no pianos!), all acoustic, flexible with regard to performance space, accommodating of untrained musicians, rewarding to play as to listen to, and in tune with its environment. Music that was, in these respects at least, close to folk music, and that addressed itself to a similar set of performance conditions.

There is a particular strand of experimental music that meets these criteria – a lot of it being composed in the UK, but far from exclusive to this country – and that I have begun to think of as resilient music. Weeks’s chamber pieces, several of them represented on Signs of Occupation, as well as vocal works like The World in tune are exemplary. Looping Busker Music (2013) on the métier CD, for example, is for a quartet of clarinet, violin, guitar and accordion and, apart from the inclusion of a tape of sampled field recordings, sounds truly resilient: simple, artless, imbued with the joy of its own existence. Furthermore, pieces like this, and the soprano solo Nakedness (2012, recorded on this disc) thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life.

Michael Finnissy (Weeks’s teacher) is an important influence on James’s compositional outlook, but while it can be extraordinarily muscular and materially self-aware, I wouldn’t always describe Finnissy’s music as resilient – it relies too much on expert performers (although there are notable exceptions, This Church being one). And while Weeks’s music is far from easy, I don’t believe its successful realisation depends upon expertise (and specialisation) – a product of a carefully managed, nurturing environment; so much as dedication – a product of desire and time, a very different proposition.

I suggested that a lot of resilient music can be found in the UK – and I would include Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Claudia Molitor and others in this group (what are we more worried about?). Rather than Finnissy, I would suggest Christopher Fox as a wellspring for this particular marriage of practicality and aesthetics. I’m going to write more about Fox’s music in another post soon, but works like Catalogue irraisoné (recorded by Weeks’s EXAUDI vocal ensemble; reviewed here) – indeed the whole of Everything You Need to Know (1999–2001) – or hearing not thinking (2006–8) seem to perfectly describe the conditions of a resilient music. The best of these pieces seem to grow from Cage’s inadvertent manifesto for a post-apocalyptic composition: that one should destroy all of one’s records; only then will one be forced to write music for oneself.

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Laurence Crane: Chamber Works 1992–2009 (Recent releases from another timbre, part 2)

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

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Laurence Crane | Chamber Works 1992–2009 | Apartment House | another timbre (at74x2)

For newcomers to the world of experimental music – hovering happily between composition and improvisation, determinism and experiment – to which another timbre dedicates itself, this is the disc I would probably turn people towards first. Although I would do that only on the basis that Laurence Cranes’ musical language is the least forbidding, based as it is on steady, even rhythms, legible, tonal harmonies, simple harmonic progressions (often just alternations of two chords). But, as Michael Pisaro points out in a lovely short essay on the AT website, despite all this Crane’s music is also ‘quietly crazy, even absurd in its extremely understated way.’ It certainly isn’t what it seems. It couldn’t possibly be. You can’t get away with writing music like that, of such surface simplicity as to have practically no surface at all. Yet Crane does; and no one else.

So what is there? I suppose we might each see something different reflected in Crane’s still waters. What I find, first, is absolute precision, coupled with an almost complete absence of redundancy. Clearly there is no ornament in the usual melodic sense, but neither is there any in a more conceptual sense. You actually try to project something clever behind the notes that you hear, those chords alternating in slow footsteps, but the music bends like a reed, absorbing and evading. It’s some of the most yin music I know.

Disc 1 contains nine pieces, mostly from the 1990s, mostly shorter. As well as three versions of Sparling – written for Apartment House’s Andrew Sparling in 1992, and something of a signature Crane piece – we have Trio (1996), Raimondas Rumsas for cello (2002), See Our Lake (1999) for alto flute, clarinets, violin, cello and vibraphone, Riis (1996) for clarinet, cello and electric organ, Bobby J (1999) for electric guitar, and the three pieces of Estonia – Erki Nool, Mart Poom, Arvo Pärt – for flutes, clarinet, violin and cello.* For those who know a little of Crane’s music already, this is the most familiar territory of homorhythmic chords, simple timbres and so on.

Disc 2 contains five pieces, mostly longer, and all from the 2000s: Seven Short Pieces for bass flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2004), Piano Piece no.23 ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ for solo piano (2009), Four Miniatures for flute, violin, percussion and piano (2003), Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani Part 1 for clarinet and auxiliary instruments (2007), and John White in Berlin for cello, electric guitar, percussion and piano (2003). This is the stranger of the two discs. The instrumentation gets a little less conventional, the sounds a little less pure – witness the percussive knocks and violin scratches tucked away in the Seven Short Pieces, or the noise-making and droning auxiliary instruments of John Vigani. The chord progressions get less straightforward. A general air of uncertainty starts to inhabit the music: the instrumental parts seem more exposed, without a solid ensemble homophony or tonal centredness to back them up; there is a greater use of silence, and of dissonance, and of dynamic contrast. It is still just as ungraspable, but now it seems even more bewilderingly so, given the seemingly greater density of musical information.

This is a significant release I believe; I hope it will prove to be. Crane’s strange vision has been lurking around the periphery of new music for a long time, almost like a secret handshake for those in the know. You’ve either heard it and been convinced, or you haven’t heard it. For those of us who have there are still surprises here: the late 90s pieces Riis and Bobby J, for example, have an almost unseemly lushness of sound; Ethiopian Distance Runners unfolds over an unCrane-like 22 minutes. John White in Berlin is something else again; in context quite a shock. While this isn’t exactly music of wild emotions or high contrasts, there is plenty here that reveals Crane as a composer of substantial range. Now that this release is out, here’s hoping it will introduce the impenetrable transparency of his music to a much wider audience.

Don’t forget the launch concert for this CD, on Tuesday 15th July at Cafe Oto.

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*Crane has a fondness for naming pieces after people, particularly sportsmen, and among them particularly cyclists. It’s a curious footnote that the three cyclists with pieces named after them here (all of them former Tour de France podium placers) have all, since the composition of their namesake pieces, been implicated in doping scandals. Rumsas, who came third in the 2002 Tour, the same year that Crane named a piece after him, had question marks over him immediately after that race when steroids, growth hormones, testosterone and more were found in his wife’s car on the same day that the race ended. Julich (Bobby J) finished third in the infamous 1998 Tour, a race in which he later confessed to have doped. Bjarne Riis admitted in 2005 to doping between 1993 and 1998, including during his 1996 Tour win – again, the same year as Crane’s piece.

This practice supposedly has little bearing on the meaning of the music itself. In this context it is interesting to note that while one might expect music written for sporting heroes who later fell from grace to carry some unintentional pathos, even this is hard to hear in Crane’s super-blank canvases.

Recent releases from another timbre, part I

Sheffield’s indie new music label another timbre have been on a heck of a burn the last few months, and two more luscious looking discs have recently fallen through the door this week. With the eyes of the sporting world turned on God’s own county thanks to the opening stages of the Tour de France, I figured the time had come to give considered appraisal to some recent releases from this Yorkshire-based label.

The six discs pictured above are, in order of release:

I’m going to give them all a short review over the coming days; keep checking back.

As you can see, apart from the release by Swedish ensemble Skogen they are all single composer portrait discs (and, in the case of the Harrison and Beuger releases, single works too). And in fact, despite its credit line, the Skogen disc is also a sort of composer portrait, being a 56-minute performance of an open-form piece by the group’s founder, Magnus Granberg. (More on this distinction when I come to review the disc itself.)

However, don’t get the impression from this that composer portraits are exclusively what another timbre do. In some ways this is quite a selective cross-section of their recent catalogue, much more of which deals in performer-led experimental and improvised work. Indeed the same might be said here too: the thing I enjoy first whenever I encounter anything released on AT is recognising the connections – not of aesthetics as such, but of values and sensibilities – between the different musicians represented, and tracing those connections back through the network of composers and performers for whom these musical relationships are the same as their personal ones.

Some of that is just to do with geography: many of the musicians featured on the discs above are based in Yorkshire, AT’s territory (as has been observed, the north of England is sometimes better served for new music than the south). London and Berlin are also important centres. But there’s something else too, a fluid, 21st-century approach to experimental music-making that isn’t hung up about composer/performer authority, that doesn’t recognise ideological lines between free improvisation, open notation (whether text or graphics), or a fully notated score. It’s not even a self-consciously radical approach to boundary breaking. Those boundaries simply no longer exist: Bryn Harrison’s precisely determined notation exists on the same plane as John Cage’s Cartridge Music or some archived improvisations by Hugh Davies. It’s just, shrug, what are we playing today?

Which should not give the impression that anything here is done with less than 100% attention and sincerity. In nearly every case these are exactly the musicians you would want to make the benchmark recordings of these pieces; very often they have worked closely with the composers over extended periods, as is certainly the case with Philip Thomas’s recording of Vessels, an epic 75-minute solo composed for him by his Huddersfield colleague Harrison. It’s also true of Apartment House’s 2-CD set of Laurence Crane’s chamber music; composer and ensemble have been collaborators for years, and this was a project born out of an immense store of mutual respect and affection (half seriously, Anton Lukoszevieze tells me he’s been waiting for this album for 20 years). Over the next few posts I’ll be digging deeper into these treasurable recordings.

 

Five fave concerts from 08

With other events dominating this year I didn’t see quite as much live music as last year. A smaller pool may statistically account for why I didn’t see quite as much that really blew me away either, or maybe I was more cynical than in 2007. Anyway, here are five I rated in 08, in chronological order:

Messiaen: Vingt régards sur l’enfant-Jésus. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, QEH, 13 January

The first of several ‘event’ concerts this year. I don’t appear to have any notes from this night, but it was fantastic. I don’t usually care much about performers, more about what they’re playing, but P-LA is an exception. Missing his Vingts régards in London a few years ago was a long-held regret of mine, finally put to rest here.

Nono: Promoteo, RFH, 9 and 10 May

Another major ‘event’. The hype may have threatened to obscure the music, but Nono’s Tragedy of Listening didn’t disappoint. Listening a second time around, in a supposedly less acoustically perfect part of the hall, was a revelation.

What I said then:

Prometeo, which begins strongly with intensely detailed waves of material but raises its game with each movement until the seventh, ‘Three Voices (a)’. This three-layered slab of solo voices, thunderous brass rumbles and a high violin drone that was slowly passed around the auditorium is a shattering experience: and on first encounter a jaw-dropping shock.

Having pushed through the spiritually cleansing rigours of the earlier movements, at this stage I was hearing Nono’s music with an acuity I have rarely experienced. It was as though layers of my received listening habits had been progressively peeled away to expose the raw, subjective core of my listening being. Nono’s musical reward for his listeners who have reached this far is this overwhelming and exhilarating 12-minute blast of sound.

EXAUDI, Shoreditch Church, Spitalfields Festival, 13 June

The smothered intricacy of Evan Johnson’s Colophons still haunts me, as does its startling central gesture. No one else sings Ferneyhough’s Missa brevis (or any Ferneyhough) like EXAUDI; and the juxtaposition of Tudor works by Sheppard and Taverner was absolutely convincing without pandering to lazy new-ageism. Looking back this was both the best programme and most revealing performance I heard all year.

What I said then:

This concert, combining Tudor motets with Anglo-American modernism, was profoundly satisfying not only because of smart and sincere programming, but also because of EXAUDI’s sensitivity to the musical lessons to be learnt from both eras. Their core repertoire of late modernism makes pretty uncompromising demands upon its performers, but the group’s great strength is in not letting standards drop for the apparently easier Renaissance repertory. Mater Christi, the first of two Marian Antiphons by John Taverner that opened the concert, was a beautiful illustration. The control, precision and balance of the 12 voices was remarkable in itself, but most breathtaking were the final bars. Many performances of Renaissance polyphony reveal a series of climaxes rolling into one another, a sort of permanent ecstatic state that cancels out any specific musical structure and leaves the listener in an anonymous state of bliss; EXAUDI, however, kept a tight lid on their dynamics until the very end when a sudden crescendo into the closing cadence made the heart leap into the throat. A thrilling and revelatory moment made possible by technique and interpretative skills honed on avant-garde repertoire.

Tony Conrad, Tate Modern, 14 June

Hugely enjoyable, profoundly troubling, got to do it once. My ears still ring just thinking about it.

What I said then:

Moving around the hall was physically oppressive, especially as you walked in and out of range of the various speakers. The first section, with TC’s shadow (with his hat) looming like a maniac with a drill, was terrifying.Rainforests, glaciers and Xenakis are awesome; Conrad is frightening, like climate change. On my way home I was physically discomfited – not just ringing ears, but ringing skin. I had to wash the sound off me before I could sleep.

Plus Minus, The Warehouse, BMIC Cutting Edge, 23 October

Videos from this concert (which mercifully don’t show the balding pate of yours truly) may be found here.

The last Cutting Edge series run by the BMIC before they are absorbed into the new Sound and Music organisation was high quality stuff (honourable mentions to both Libra Duo and Asamisimasa Duo), but + – just pip it for a) the most consistently interesting programme (including fine pieces by Laurence Crane, Matthew Shlomowitz and Markus Trunk) and b) introducing London to the very strange music of Peter Ablinger.

Last year’s list.

Radius, Wigmore Hall, 8 Jan 2008

Following their debut last year, this was Radius‘s second show at this prestigious and traditionally conservative venue. As before, they brought an eclectic collection of works by established modernist masters and younger British composers. Last night we were treated to pieces by Feldman, Xenakis and Vivier, as well as works by Radius’s co-founders Tim Benjamin and Ian Vine, and five short pieces composed in honour of Simon Holt’s 50th birthday. And, as before, what looked like a great programme on paper sounded surprisingly bitty in practice.

Piece by piece I had few complaints, although the Vivier (Paramirabo, 1978) really didn’t click. But then Vivier hasn’t yet done it for me in general, and this piece – of his earlier style, rather rambling, a little gimmicky, and sounding oddly like a lost English modernist – may not have been the best occasion to figure him out. Benjamin’s In memomoriam Tape Recorder didn’t quite work either, unfortunately, but this appeared hamstrung by some on-stage technical difficulties. His Three Portraits (2007, wp) were pithier and came over rather better.

Grouped compositions written for a special occasion are tricky things to review; they’re often an opportunity to hear some things by composers who have previously escaped your attention but, like free sampler CDs, they rarely give you enough to make a proper judgement. Five Birthday Cards for Simon Holt (2007, wp) was, in two instances, an exception to this rule. Larry Goves’s riviniana made more of an impression on me than his My name is Peter Stillman. That is not my real name, which I heard last month (and from which riviniana is derived). And Laurence Crane’s impossibly simple, extremely beautiful music seems perfectly suited to these things; his Simon 10 Holt 50 also best negotiated the formal difficulties of composing with such brevity.

It is a pleasure to hear an ensemble of Radius’s quality testing the Wigmore’s acoustic with some experimental repertoire, and Feldman’s Durations I (1960) was a gift in this respect. Still more successful was Xenakis’s Kottos (1977), given a powerful rendition by cellist Oliver Coates, every detail of the composer’s sonic imagination ringing clear. The other solo piece, Ian Vine’s X (2007, wp) for percussionist I thought was outstanding. I spent the first half without a programme, and could only remember the composer names, not any of the works to be performed, and I intend it as a high compliment when I say that I was pretty sure that this must have been the programmed Xenakis.

Something of an evening for individual rather than collective efforts, then. But at its core, Radius is a gifted and ambitious ensemble, playing music that few others dare touch. Once they iron out the bumps in programming, they should become a force to reckon with. Keep watching this space.