With EXAUDI, exposed


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.


Mark Applebaum in the UK

Composer and performer Mark Applebaum (whose music I have previously reviewed here and here) will be visiting London next month and giving a few concerts while he’s here (two of which I know about so far).

First up, he will appear at the Chisenhale Art Club on 1 June, where he’ll be performing four pieces, alongside Serge Vuille, Mark Knoop, Gijs Kramers, the RCM Percussion Ensemble, and the Standford Improvisation Collective, Oxford Chapter. Decide for yourself whether his graphical work is a 60s throwback or a vibrant contribution to a noble tradition.

Chisenhale Art Club is a monthly night curated by Roberta Jean, Bryony Kimmings and Matthew Shlomowitz that mixes dance, live art, music and film. Other acts on the night include live art/spoken word performance by Drew Taylor, dance by Joe Moran and music by Sarah Trouche.

Chisenhale Art Club is hosted at the Chisenhale Dance Space, 64–84 Chisenhale Road, London E3. Tickets £5 on the door. More details via the tumblr page.

Then, on the 9th June, Applebaum will be playing at the City University Performance Space, alongside vocalist Sharon Gal and pianist Ian Pace. The programme will include pieces by Gal, Hani Abbasi, Davy Berryman, Guy Harries and Holly Ingleton, and Applebaum’s Cadenza and Aphasia. Free admission, concert starts at 7pm.

10 for ’10: Matthew Shlomowitz

Matthew Shlomowitz is a composer who defies easy categorisation. An Australian who has lived in London for eight years, he has studied with both Ferneyhough and Finnissy. Yet on a first listen his music seems to owe nothing to either of them.

For about five years now, Shlomowitz’s music has become increasingly beat-based, rhythmically simple, with everything becoming locked to a grid of steady pulses. None of the rhythmic intricacies of Ferneyhough or Finnissy here. But this simplicity doesn’t sound naive. Without wishing to push this too far (because there are intricacies of rhythm here that arise as by-products of the score once it reaches performance), Shlomowitz’s music has a rhythmic whiteness that is at a level very rarely heard in any music. Such consistency, such evenness, is disconcerting, even shocking.

Here’s a video of Five Monuments for our Time, one of a series of Letter Pieces Shlomowitz has been composing since 2007. These are discussed a little further in the interview below, but essentially they all include a degree of openness, such that part or all of the score is notated simply as letters (eg A to E) attached to a regular pulse. Within certain parameters the performers are free to assign their own sounds or actions to each letter. In Five Monuments for our Time, the five letters of the conductor’s part (which begins around one minute into the video) are proscribed as follows:

A, B and C are conducting gestures of the conductor’s choice
D is a bow
E is a non-conducting gesture of the conductor’s choice.

The performers are Gijs Kramers and the Ricciotti Ensemble.

In a way, the grid is like the white walls of a gallery. It’s what happens within the spaces that is interesting. Shlomowitz, like Finnissy and like many other composers of his generation, is fascinated by the nature of material: the connotations, both musical and emotional, that a short burst of notes or even a single sound can hold, and the limits of those connotations when material is stretched, reworked or placed in unfamiliar situations.

Although his earlier work (some of which is available to listen to on his website) uses more abstract material, Shlomowitz has recently been drawn to material drawn from the everyday – popular music and concrete sounds. Because of the latter, samplers have come to play an increasing role in his music, and a good example will be heard in Monday’s Kings Place concert, at which a major new work for piano and sampler, Popular Contexts, will receive its premiere.

As will be seen below, Shlomowitz isn’t so much interested in reworking his material into unrecognisable new forms, but is more interested in the aesthetic frictions created by juxtaposition, translation and recontextualisation. The score for the first of the six Popular Contexts pieces, Free Sound, is available below: the key, I think, is the defamiliarising juxtaposition of quite aggressively ‘real’ sounds – including station announcements and machine-gun fire – with a concert pianist. The effect is initially comic, but it is carried through with such deliberation and solemnity (a product of that rhythmic evenness) that one can’t help but want to hear through to the deeper underlying story of the piece.

Here’s the score for Free Sound, one jpeg per page:

title page, page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5, page 6.

NB: Unlike previous interviews in the 10 for ’10 series, this one was conducted live, over Skype, rather than by email. We began by talking about the use of samplers in Popular Contexts.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Once you’ve collected all your sampled, concrete material together, how do you organise it?

Matthew Shlomowitz: The first thing to say is I should come clean and say that I’m not making field recordings, which composers with more integrity than me might [laughs], I’m just ripping these samples off the internet. And the first in the Popular Contexts series of six pieces is called Free Sound, which has a double meaning. The first is really an acknowledgement of www.freesound.org, a very nice website for ripping samples. And the other confession is that I use Garageband, just a stock standard programme on Apple Macs, so I export all the samples into there and just start mucking around with them really.

TR-J: And do you have a plan for the form or do you intuit it as you go along?

MS: A mixture. What I’ve found recently is that I’ve been mucking around and just generating lots of stuff that I like, and then kind of listening to it at some moment when I’ve got some distance from it, and then trying to think about a form or think about what I’m doing with it. I notice that when I work on Garageband one big problem is that you keep on trying to make it fun and exciting to listen to so it frolicks along happily, but then sometimes I think there’s no critical distance at all from the material, it’s just trying to be exciting. So I try to step back and have a listen and try to reformulate what I think it is.

TR-J: And is working in something like Garageband and pulling samples off the internet rather than field recording, is that just a question of practicality, or is there an aesthetic dimension to that, working with quite off-the-peg sources and technology?

MS: Yeah, on freesound you can find really beautifully recorded things and really badly recorded things, and I like both at different moments. I like making shifts between them even, so you make a really trashy moment in a piece that previously had quite beautifully recorded sounds of things. So there’s not one aesthetic towards these sounds. I guess the reason it’s really nice, rather than recording sounds myself is that I often work with topics, so one of the Popular Contexts pieces is really all about telephone sounds – in the broadest sense, not just the sound of telephones, but everything around telephones, even cold-calling when people try to sell you things. Everything to do with phones, and then it’s really easy to find heaps of stuff.

TR-J: Is that sort of topic-based thinking going on in a piece like Northern Cities?

MS: Well in all of the Letter Pieces the content is not defined, so it’s a bit different. The performers create the material, which is usually a mixture of physical actions and sound events. Each sound or action is represented by a letter in the score. In Northern Cities the two performers have to create a bunch of actions and a bunch of sounds, and they can be anything, except that I stipulate certain relationships. For instance, the A, B and C for performer 1 might be three sound events that are connected to each other, but have no relationship with the A, B and C of the other performer. But then D is the opposite, its a physical action, and it should make a connection with the D of the other performer. For instance, D for one performer is to punch, and for the other is to look as they’ve been punched. So I give some concepts for guiding how people should think about how they generate their material but I don’t define the material at all.

TR-J: So when you’re starting out on a piece, what is material for you?

MS: I guess the first thing to say is that I really in the last few years like material that is related to popular culture and also to the everyday world. So when I’m choosing material that’s sort of where I’m going. But as with the Letter Pieces I’m leaving it open. I guess what connects the pieces where I choose the material with those pieces where I don’t is that the way that I handle the material is usually the same. It’s generally very short objects or events, and a very restricted number of them. So it’s all about patterning and sequencing of them and putting these things in processes and that sort of thing.

In a way, what I do with material seems more defining of the language than the material itself. Like in Northern Cities I’ve seen four different performances of that piece, and it really is somehow the same piece each time, because no matter what you put into it the way that it is treated is so specific that it feels the same in a way.

TR-J: You’ve found a way of retaining the identity of the piece even though the sound material might be really diverse.

MS: That’s right, and in Popular Contexts there are six pieces, and they’re all different, but there is a connection between the first and the fifth, which are basically the same piece, the piano part is almost identical in both of them. The fifth one is called Weird Twin, making a reference to the fact that it’s a recasting of the first one, but the difference is that the samples are all different. So it somehow points at the – not arbitrariness, that’s too strong a word, because not any sample works – but the potential at least that these first choices were not the only ones that could have been made.

TR-J: There is this sort of development in your music from things that are more fluid to things that are quite ‘boxed-up’, for want of a better word. The way that the Letter Pieces work seems to lend itself to that kind of on-off kind of binary structure, whereas some of the earlier pieces don’t. Is that a different relationship with performers that has evolved over time as well?

MS: I suppose there is, because if you want to find ways to work with performers in ways that are more open, you have to find a way to do it and this was my way. Boxed-up is for sure true, but it’s more beat-based …

TR-J: Like a grid …

MS: That’s the right word.

TR-J: And once you’ve established your material, and maybe some aspects of the grid, what sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose the next bar and the next bar?

MS: I suppose the broadest ideas are to create a critical distance from the material. I teach a course for Syracuse University and the students come to London for a 14-week study abroad programme, and I was playing them a few of my pieces on Monday. And one of the students said quite reasonably they didn’t understand why I was starting and stopping the music all the time – they found it really unsettling. And I’m not trying to make unsettled music in any kind of psychological sense, but I do stop and start to try to create some kind of distance from the material. Critical thinking in contemporary music is usually applied to a very select repertoire of sounds and ideas from our postwar tradition, which I find a bit limited and a bit insular. The thinking means a lot to me, but I guess the project is to apply that thinking in a much broader way, to the much more familiar sounds of the everyday world and popular culture.

So that’s the background. But to answer the question more specifically, as I said before on Garageband I just get into what I’m doing and just make music that makes me happy, but I always try to step back and think how can I do stuff with this material that you wouldn’t expect of it. The thing is, when you listen to the first few bars of a Country and Western song one of the first things that I might think at least is that I kind of know this musical style and language, and I don’t expect that this song is going to outside it, and you’re normally right. And you could say the same thing about a lot of new music pieces. So I try not to do that. I try and take the material to places beyond where one might expect, outside its frame of reference. That’s a bit of the imagination challenge I set myself. I might start with a bit of calypso music, but then have a look at, try and find something in the material, even taking a bit of a ‘Stockhausen’ analytical attitude, so that I can find something different in it.

TR-J: When I listen to some of your pieces it’s as though the music’s happening to the material – it’s the opposite of that organic thing where one grows out of the other, and actually the material’s caught in this structure or bunch of forces that are happening to it, and it doesn’t really have a lot of control over how it proceeds.

MS: Yeah, I guess that’s the idea of putting things in sequences, it can often make a distance and make something familiar unfamiliar, which I like. But also you’re right that it is completely inorganic because the material is  really fixed – and I don’t just mean the samples, I also mean the instrumental music. I pretty much only do to the instrumental music the kind of thing that I do to the samples. That is, the only variations are to slow it down, speed it up or cut it off in weird places, or to loop it or whatever. So there’s really no organic development in the material.

TR-J: One more question, the trademark question: here’s a middle C, what do you do now?

MS: Well, I would probably couple it with a sample at the moment, which is a pretty lazy answer, but it’s probably the truth [laughs]. Yeah, that is genuinely what I would do at the moment!

TR-J: But what sample?

MS: I normally have an idea. Like I said, one of the pieces in Popular Contexts is all about telephone sounds. And in another one I tried to make a MIDI orchestra – it’s like klangfarben gone wrong, so every note of the keyboard is a different MIDI instrument, so the pianist and the sampler play the exact same stuff, so in one version you hear the piano playing it all with uniform attacks and timbre, but then you hear the exact same thing translated – it sounds like a complete mess really, and you can kind of really see how different attacks can be. So, I don’t just surf around freesound.org [laughs], I normally have some ideas!

Mark Knoop plays Shlomowitz and Finnissy

Mark Knoop

Update, 19 Nov: Stay tuned for a 10 for ’10 interview with Matthew Shlomowitz, coming very soon.

Another great concert at Kings Place next Monday. The Huddersfield festival will already be underway,  but any new music lovers still in London won’t want to miss Mark Knoop playing Michael Finnissy’s classic English Country-Tunes and a big new work for piano and sampler by Matthew Shlomowitz, Popular Contexts.

Here are the details:

Date: Monday 22 November
Time: 20:00
Venue: Hall Two
Price: £9.50

Matthew Shlomowitz Popular Contexts (2010)

Michael Finnissy English Country-Tunes (1977/1982-85)

Tickets can be booked through the Kings Place website.

If you don’t know English Country-Tunes, or would like a refresher, there are various versions on YouTube, but you can’t go far wrong with this rare footage of Finnissy himself playing the piece in 1984, accompanied by the dancer Kris Donovan.

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.

Parkinson Saunders and Lely

THURSDAY 18th September

18-22 Ashwin Street,
Dalston, E8 3DL

Time : 8pm
Tickets : £6

A Series of Fortunate Events presents;

James SAUNDERS / Tim PARKINSON and Special Guest John LELY

music by Alison Knowles, Alwyne Pritchard, Paul Whitty, Matthew Shlomowitz


David Ryan, clarinets/ Sebastian Lexer, piano & electronics


Parkinson Saunders consists of the composer performers Tim Parkinson and James Saunders. Seated at two tables, their instrumentation comprises any sound producing means other than conventional instruments. This can include lo-fi electronics, ordinary objects, toys, vocalisations and other natural sound sources, resulting in a table-top orchestra of possibilities. Their repertoire centres around experimental music that can be realised in a multiplicity of ways, and music that involves very elementary sound production.

Keep your eyes on http://smabpf.blogspot.com/ for more like this.