CD Review: Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum


Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum | Hákon Stene, percussion | Ahornfelder AH25

I now own at least three recordings of Silver Street Car for the Orchestra, which is surely enough.

My latest copy of Alvin Lucier’s famous solo for triangle, on this fine recital disc by Håkon Stene, is the shortest of the three and, being recorded in a very resonant acoustic – the glorious Tomba Emmanuelle in Oslo – is very different from the other two. (The others are by Brian Johnson on the Ever Present disc, and Ross Parfitt, recorded at Tate Modern.) Do I like it? It’s certainly more immediately attractive than the other, drier, versions; there’s more to listen to, in a straightforward sense, as the overtones swing round the room’s 20-second reverberation. The sound blooms extravagantly (it roars). I wasn’t sure at first so had to ask – Stene assures me it is just him, the triangle and the room, although all four corners of the space were miked so as to make the most of the ambience. It must have been quite something to hear in person.

I’m in two minds about how faithful it is to what I take to be Lucier’s concept though – the minute, phasing variations you get from a typical performance of SSC are both blown up and swamped by the acoustic. The scale on which things take place is completely altered. That said, a lot of the original nuance doesn’t transmit well to recording anyway. At the very least Stene should be credited for experimenting with a solution, and the results are pretty stunning.

Stene also uses the Tomba Emmanuelle for his recording of Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (1). Even more than the Lucier, the acoustic distorts (saying that as neutrally as possible) one’s expectation of what a Michael Pisaro piece is going to sound like. Here there is a little more mediation involved. Each separate part of Pisaro’s score (which involves dropping rice onto different surfaces) was recorded separately, then played back in separate channels into the room. I think the tracks themselves were also recorded in the Tomba, so you have reverb on reverb. It gets a lot louder than any Pisaro piece I know, a consequence of the sheer volume of rice Stene appears to be using. Bits remind me of some of those early Xenakis tape pieces – Concret PH or Bohor come to mind.

I’m only recently getting acquainted with Marko Ciciliani‘s music and I’m still searching for a frame within which to get to grips with it. I’ll confess that Black Horizons has me baffled. It is written for two table-top guitars (Stene is supported here by Ciciliani himself), which rarely play settled pitches, almost always drifting queasily up or down after each attack. There’s a steady, pulsing strum throughout most of the piece, over which are laid sharper attacks, slowly drifting glissandi, and, going beyond the guitars themselves, short spoken word samples and other noise sources. There’s certainly something improvisatory – at least in feel – here, although I miss a sense of inter-performer focus. I guess it’s a little, well, rambling, and I haven’t yet made out a formal design, or a binding concept. Which isn’t to say there isn’t one or the other; just that it remains opaque to me.

But the key to this record are the Studies in Self-Imposed Tristesse by Lars Petter Hagen, three of which are distributed throughout the album. The ‘study’ of the title may refer to some sort of conceptual restriction, but these are also studies in a musical sense, in the varying qualities of attack and sustain of different sound sources, whether bells, sine tones, radio static, bowed vibes and so on. All of those are sounds that bring them into contact with the other three tracks on the disc. (Indeed it’s easy to miss the cuts between the Ciciliani piece and the studies before and after it.) The studies are based on preparatory fragments of a larger work for strings by the mid-century nationalist composer Geir Tveitt (1908–81), part of the small amount of work recovered from a house fire in 1970 that destroyed nearly all of his music. Know that about their history, and suddenly this album’s emotional and symbolic terrain draws together.


Also out now is a CD single (Ahornfelder AH26) that pairs Stene’s thumping reading of Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet with a remix by Sir Duperman (Jørgen Træen). Opting not to force Ferneyhough’s rhythms into a beats-heavy IDM straitjacket, Træen goes for something more freeform, making the most of Ferneyhough’s rigidly stratified percussion timbres to squeeze his material into a mix of dubby squelches and pops-and-sine tone Stockhausen. By about midway, the source sounds have passed from recognition, returning only towards the end.

I reviewed Stene live, back in 2008, playing the Ferneyhough and Hagan pieces as one half of the asamisamasa duo. See bottom half of the page here.


I’m curating a show (and shaking a tin)

Exciting times here at Rambler Towers. As well as putting together plans for my first full book, I’m also curating a show at Kings Place in September as part of their autumn OutHear series. I’m thrilled that the amazing Apartment House will be playing.

The concert will be on Sunday 22nd September, starting at 4pm – a very civilised late afternoon sort of time. More details, ticket information and all that jazz to come, but in the mean time please check out the Facebook page.

I’ve called the show ‘Some Recent Silences’, a title borrowed from the Cage tribute article I wrote for NewMusicBox last year. The article itself was an inspiration, but the concert follows some angles of its own:

G. Douglas Barrett – A Few Silence
Gregory Emfietzis – DIY 1
Mathias Spahlinger – 128 erfüllte augenblicke


Ben Isaacs – allone
György Kurtág – Dumb Show
Charlie Sdraulig – Close
Michael Pisaro – Fade

There are some nods to the post-Cage/conceptual work discussed in the NMBx article, particularly in Barrett’s A Few Silence, which begins the concert with five minutes of silence, followed by a five-minute transcription of that silence played by the four musicians. Pisaro’s Fade for solo piano takes us slowly back to silence through a series of long, slow decays.

In between, however, I’ve shifted the emphasis slightly towards more music-theatrical uses of silence. The Isaacs and Sdraulig pieces thematise, in quite different ways, the production of sound at the edge of silence. In Sdraulig’s Close this often leads to ‘sonically redundant’ gestures that are composed, and have a musical content of a sort, but that don’t result in the production of an audible sound (bowing slightly above the string, for example). Isaacs’ allone is more effortful and activity-filled, but drawing on a similar repertoire of performer/instrument interactions. Kurtág’s very short Dumb Show, from Book 1 of his Játékok series, takes this a step further into the absurd, notating a complete piano miniature, including dynamics and articulation markings, but with the instruction to touch the keys only very gently, without depressing any of them. In another piece for piano (or pianist?), Greg Emfietzis uses an on-stage lamp as a silent partner in the music, contributing to and interfering with its development.

And at the heart of the concert is Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, among other things a study in the relationship between silence and sound at the extremes of musical fragmentation. With the wonderful Lore Lixenberg singing, this will surely acquire a certain dramatic aspect too.

Over the coming months I will be posting quite a lot of material related to this concert; there will be some 10 for ’10-style composer profiles of the four younger composers in the concert, as well as some new entries to the Contemporary Notation Project. Probably one or two other surprises along the way.

Of course, putting something like this together costs money, and in the UK at least funding for one-off concert projects – particularly ones that are devised around an idea, rather than to showcase brand new commissions – is hard to come by. After some consideration, I am taking the step of asking you, my readers, for your help. I’ve always resisted on principle the idea of monetising the Rambler: I write here for the love, I get a lot out of doing it, and I don’t feel obliged to any standard of professionalism, which frees me up to write stuff that would be difficult to place elsewhere.

That principle hasn’t changed, and isn’t going to. However, if you do enjoy what you read here, and particularly if you come to enjoy the various posts I’ve got lined up in relation to the Some Recent Silences concert, then it would be a massive help if you would consider a small donation towards the costs of putting this show on.

Any money raised will be exclusively reserved for the players; none of it will end up as profit for me. In the event that I actually raise more money than the players are asking for (you never know …), it will still go to the players; they’ll just get a bonus. In the interests of transparency, I will of course make the accounts available to anyone who asks to see them.

If you would like to make a donation, of whatever size, please send it to the dedicated PayPal account at:

If you would like or are happy to have your name included on a list of donors, please make a note of this with your payment.

Thank you.

Michael Pisaro and Aaron Cassidy in conversation

No sooner do I review Michael Pisaro’s new fields have ears CD than this video conversation between him and composer Aaron Cassidy pops up on YouTube:

The video is part of the build-up to this astonishing concert by the JACK Quartet, which takes place as part of the Monday Evening Concerts series at Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles next Monday. (Paul Griffiths’ notes for this concert rise to the occasion, and are well worth your time.)

Although from the outside Pisaro and Cassidy might seem miles apart from one another musically, in actual fact they’re much closer than first impressions suggest. Cassidy was taught by Pisaro for a time, and he has spoken emphatically about the importance of his grounding in that post-Cageian experimental aesthetic for his compositional development. (Peter Ablinger, whose name crops up in this video in the context of interesting discussion about American/European ‘experimental’, is a critical fulcrum.)

Listening to Pisaro and Cassidy in conversation it’s abundantly clear that there are much greater areas of musical sympathy between the two than there are areas of conflict.

AC: So much what we do, so much of our training, is about the link between imagined sound and material and notation, and what happens when one part of that is broken – like when you’re inventing a notational system from scratch, the connection between what’s on the page and what might sound is nowhere as reliable as if you’re using a learned, more stable notation system.

MP: I always wonder how reliable the stable notations actually are. To me it almost seems more about what parameter you care about. So if I look at an older string quartet – you know, traditional classical music – I’ll get rhythm and pitch and dynamics. OK, what if I really care about pitch. What if I really care that there are 30 or 40 different possible middle Cs and they’re going to play any of them at any time; you could say that in the register that I’m listening to that’s approximate. That in fact I write a middle C but at that level of detail I still again don’t know what I’m going to get.

AC: I think that’s definitely true.

Sure, this is just a single conversation between two composers already well-known to each other, but it’s a pattern of overlap and common ground that exists to a much greater degree across contemporary music than some observers are comfortable admitting. And yes, there are substantial differences in the music that they write, but those differences are alternative solutions to common problems faced by all sensitive musicians: matters of perception, communication, notation and so on. Starting from that position of common ground the different paths taken to those solutions are the key to understanding. Histories of recent music that seek to deny that fundamental commonality are simply misleading and divisive.

P.S. Speaking personally, the appearance of this video is a neat piece of synchronicity: I’ve got an article on Aaron’s Second String Quartet coming up on NewMusicBox, so watch this space for a link.

Michael Pisaro: Fields have ears

Philip Thomas, piano
Edges Ensemble
Another Timbre at37

This is a newish release from Another Timbre.  Not a label I knew before now; clicking through their back catalogue that may be because their focus is more improv-based than I’m usually familiar with. But a recent series of discs around the theme ‘Silence and after’, marking the fiftieth anniversary this year of Cage’s Silence, marks a distinct turn towards composed music.

Of course, in the case of Pisaro, ‘composed’ comes with some heavy qualifiers. Michael Pisaro‘s music hails from that hazy boundary between the intended and the serendipitous. Fields have ears 1 for piano and tape (2008), played beautifully by Philip Thomas, at first recalls the final section of Christopher Fox’s More Things in the Air than are Visible: melancholy piano chords float in a haze of ambient, natural sound. In the case of the Pisaro, this sounds like a field recording made in a summer meadow, surrounded by birdsong. The Fox soundtrack (or at least that on Ian Pace’s recording on Metier) is more urban, but at the same more naturalistic: there is pronounced (even enhanced?) mechanical hum and hiss on the Pisaro tape, ironically alerting us to the materiality of every sound we hear. The piano sits somewhere within this soundscape, both artificial and completely natural.

fields have ears 4 (2009), is somehow less present, in spite of its realisation here for a large ensemble of 14 instruments. As a single note on the inlay puts it, it is ‘intended to be very quiet, with the sounding sections being only “slight indentations” in the surrounding silences’. For all that, they are fascinating indentations, like tiny geodes of sound, as though micro-climatic forces had compressed the surrounding air into miniature sonic-crystal formations. A lot of post-Cage, Wandelweiser-related pieces are impressive in their seismography of the sound/silence interface, but few pieces that I’ve heard articulate quite such a sense of depth residing behind those flickering charts.

Between these two related pieces, the earlier fade for piano (2000) is much more austere: a series of tones, each different, seemingly unconnected, repeated at decreasing volumes and allowed to fade into nothing. The whole sequence spans 20 minutes. Here, without a soundtrack and very little else to cling onto, the ear’s attention is turned to the ways in which silences or unintentional ambient noise structure a composed process that is both extremely simple and completely obscure. As the piano tones fade out of earshot – in absolutely predictable fashion – they invite the ear deeper into a quiet world beyond the generative, organising, cultured attack and beyond that still further into the anarchy of silence.

N.B. If you’re in London and you’d like to hear some of Pisaro’s sonic seismography live, then get yourself to The Nunnery Gallery, Bow Road, this Saturday for music by Pisaro, performed by Jennifer Allum (violin), Dan Shilladay (viola), Rebecca Dixon (cello), Dominic Lash (double bass), Henri Växby (guitar), Jamie Coleman  (trumpet) and Tim Parkinson (voice).

During 1996 Pisaro wrote eight pieces under the collective title of ‘Mind is Moving’. For this event Pisaro has designed a schemata which specifies entry points and duration for each performer in the course of the 3-hours performance.

Date: Saturday 12th February
Time: 6.30pm – 9.30pm
Entrance: Free

Venue: The Nunnery
183 Bow Road, London, E3 2SJ

Michael Pisaro in September

If you’re in South Carolina this month there are some nice looking Michael Pisaro concerts heading your way, courtesy of Charleston’s New Music Collective:

September 19
3:00 PM (free)
ricefall (2) (2007) (sound installation) with Exchange (2000)
6:30 PM (free)
discussion with Michael Pisaro

8:00 PM ($10 / $5 students / under 18 free)
The Collection
selections from the harmony series (2004 – 2006)
fields have ears (7) (2010) (premiere)

Circular Congregational Church
150 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina


September 20

3:00 PM (free)
ricefall (2) (2007) (sound installation) with Exchange (2000)
6:30 PM (free)
discussion with Michael Pisaro
8:00 PM ($10 / $5 students / under 18 free)
The Collection
selections from the harmony series (2004 – 2006)
fields have ears (7) (2010)

701 Center for Contemporary Art
701 Whaley Street, Columbia, South Carolina


September 21
5:00 PM (free)
discussion and workshop with Michael Pisaro
selections from the harmony series (2004 – 2006)

Rensing Center
1237 Mile Creek Road, Pickens, South Carolina

There’s also an interview with Pisaro, on and around his music of the last 10 years, here.

Incidental music in London

Some great news for your April diary already: Manfred Werder‘s group incidental music are coming to London for a pair of concerts. They’ll be playing a total of six works of an experimental/quiet bent, by four composers associated with Wandelweiser Edition: Antoine Beuger, Tim Parkinson, Michael Pisaro and Werder himself. These promise to be very special evenings: if you are in London you will not want to miss them.

23 April
Church of St Anne & St Agnes, 7:30pm
Gresham Street, London EC2
£9 (£6)

Tim Parkinson: new work (2010)
Michael Pisaro: Ascending Series (2.2) (2009)
Manfred Werder: 2008(4)

25 April
Cafe OTO, 8pm
18–22 Ashwin street, London E8
£9 (£6)

Manfred Werder: 2010
Antoine Beuger: kiarostami quintets (2004)
Tim Parkinson: trio with objects (2008)

incidental music are:
Julia Eckhardt, viola and varia (Brussels)
Normisa Pereira da Silva, flutes and varia (Berlin)
Stefan Thut, violoncello and varia (Solothurn)
Manfred Werder, varia (Zürich/London)
Angharad Davies, violin (London)
Tim Parkinson, varia (London)

Several Silences

Will you be in Columbia, South Carolina, next Monday? I’d got to this if I were you:

Several Silences

music by Antoine Beuger, Jason Brogan, Michael Pisaro, Sam Sfirri, Mark So and Manfred Werder

Following composer John Cage, the folds experimental music and performance workshop, directed by composer and guitarist Jason Brogan, present as series of six “silences”, complex sonic landscapes where quietude, possibility and a heightened awareness of the presence of sound take precedence over “activity”. The program will include pieces by six of the most quietly radical contemporary composers.

27 July 2009

701 Center for Contemporary Art
Columbia, South Carolina USA

Antoine Beuger, cantor quartets
Jason Brogan, metronomic irregularity
Michael Pisaro, harmony series nos. 11a-d
Sam Sfirri, I gave thanks for evening that brings out the lights
Mark So, this singular tale of the past
Manfred Werder, 2008 (1)

performed by the folds experimental music and performance workshop:
Jason Brogan, Nathan Koci, Sam Sfirri, Mark So, Ron Wiltrout