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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Against the day: A concert for Simon Howard

Last week I attended a concert for the poet Simon Howard, who died in December 2013. It was not really a memorial as such – no eulogies or anything like that. More, it was an opportunity to gather Simon’s friends and many admirers to listen to a cross section of the music he inspired and that had inspired him, and to place on the record the small but intense influence Simon and his poetry have had on a little segment of the Anglo-American new music scene over the last few years.

So there were two pieces by Richard Barrett, lost for piano (the title of whose version with electronics, adrift, Simon borrowed for one of his own chapbooks) and tendril for harp and electronics. Barrett is a composer Simon always felt close too; he also loved the music of the Baroque, and there were pieces here too by Bach and Biber, sensitively chosen by the concert’s organiser, John Fallas.

John, I suppose, is one of few people who can claim to have known Simon, who was a severe recluse, at all well (I’m not one of them). He did an exemplary job putting the programme together, not only in terms of the music and the composers it contained, but also the performers (Pavlos Antoniadis, Milana Zarić, Carla Rees, Emily Howard, Persephone Gibbs), and wrote a beautiful programme essay to boot. Everything fit, and was fitting. Simon’s poetry as musical text was represented by Philip Venables’ numbers 91–95, a setting of part of Howard’s long poem numbers (2010). Almost all the other composers on the programme had known Simon, like I had, through his presence on Radio 3 webforums and later Facebook. Philipp Blume and John Hails contributed new pieces – enlightenment for harp and recording, and Departures for four-channel sound, respectively – both connected to Simon’s poetry and poetic enthusiasms: enlightenment is the title of the last poem he posted to his blog. Evan Johnson, Andrew Noble and Alistair Zaldua were present in the form of pieces for piano (with electronics in the case of Zaldua’s contrejours). The concert began with Utopians, an electronic piece constructed by Barbara Woof and Michèl Koenders from voice recordings by Howard and Jane Harrison. It was remarkable to hear, in this way, on this occasion, Simon’s voice for the first time.

I’m not writing a review here, so I shan’t. But aside from its biographical meaning this concert was extraordinary for the quality of the music; I honestly don’t think there was a weak piece in the programme (and how often can you say that?). Several of them were very very good indeed. In showing Simon at the centre of a small but fiercely fruitful network of musicians this concert’s sadness was also its gift. And now that network has lost its heart.

Many of Simon Howard’s poems can be read at his blog, walking in the ceiling; his published works include Zooaxeimplode (Arthur Shilling Press), numbers (Knives Forks and Spoons), adrift and Forgotten (Red Ceilings Press), and Wrecked (Oystercatcher Press). [update: list corrected]

ELISION in Huddersfield – review

JangAlvarezMatthew_SergeantPaulding

Just over a week ago in Huddersfield ELISION presented a concert of four works by postgraduate composers Alex Jang, Pedro Alvarez, Matthew Sergeant and Luke Paulding, followed by a realisation of Richard Barrett’s CODEX IV for four improvising musicians.

These being student works, there were naturally areas where more experience and development in the future will count. But more importantly, I heard four distinct voices, each attempting a tricky artistic problem, and each coming up with a musically intriguing result.

Jang’s Retracings, for trumpet and percussion, was instrumentally and formally the lightest of the pieces; it had a much lower density of activity, at times stripping down to just the sizzle of a cymbal or rumble of a bass drum. It was also, I think, less concerned with weight and presence, and more a sort of spectral afterglow.

At several points one felt a distinct sense of dissipation, but the music was so low-key that there was rarely a sense of where we might have dissipated from. It is a piece possessed of strange and unidentifiable energies. Yet it somehow made a shape for itself. Although fragmentary in style, Jang’s use of a controlled timbral palette (dominated by sizzling or brushing sounds) prevented it from becoming too discontinuous.

The balance of activity between the two players is interesting. The music is dominated by the percussion, with the trumpet playing a very aphoristic role, certainly not acting as a melodic voice in its own right. It’s less of a duo than a solo + 1. Alex told me afterwards that he intended the trumpet as an extension of the metallic percussion instruments – its music came from the timbre and gestural language of percussion, rather than brass. And again, the choice of a sonic palette is a dominant feature.

Alvarez’s Debris was the least ‘ELISION-y’ of the four pieces, in that it didn’t emphasise virtuosity, and set its formal argument on the macro- rather than micro-level. It is arranged in sharply defined panels, which are continually shuffled and varied as the piece progresses. The composer’s notes refer to ‘negat[ing] aesthetic ideals of fluency and continuity’, and the idea of gate-switching between different gestural states is important. In addition to a small set of restricted (and related) instrumental textures, two further elements were in play: an electronic patch that was a sort of mellowed aggregrate of the previous instrumental sound, and very short bursts of noisy, saturated improvisation.

In an unexpected way it owed a debt to minimalism, or post-minimalism, like a Michael Gordon without half an eye on its audience. Certainly Alvarez is tackling the themes of continuity, rupture, form, duration and so on familiar from minimalism, but doing so with less easily assimilated materials so as not to let the work slip into a new agey/Arcadian mode. I liked it more than I thought I would, if I’m honest. On stage its longeurs are forgotten, and its subtle shifts in rhythm and texture are well-judged to maintain a sense of inquisitive experiment. I wasn’t convinced by the improvised interjections/punctuations, but they require such a vertiginous change in playing that I appreciate they may be hard to bring off successfully.

There’s a very obvious temptation for a young composer invited to write for a group like ELISION to forget any considerations of technique or practicality, and just let your ideas run to their limit. Matthew Sergeant cannot be accused of not taking this opportunity.

yimrehanne krestos is a trio for flugelhorn, alto trombone and percussion. It’s about 11 minutes long but it is played at a ferocious speed and, for the two brass players, completely without a break. In truth, it stepped beyond the boundary of the possible. In one passage percussion notes are flying past at a rate of about 10 per second. With grace notes in between. The writing for flugelhorn and trombone (!) hits similar speeds at times.

That’s what the score says, anyway. In practice ELISION brought the tempo down a notch, although not that you could tell from the dementedly fast sticks that Peter Neville brought out on the night. Most astonishingly it wasn’t just a blur, but playing that retained its contours of rhythm and timbre. Similarly, how Tristram Williams and Ben Marks coped without so much as a quaver’s rest between them I will never know.

But this piece is more than a speed-fuelled thrash. Yimrehanne Krestos is the name of an Ethiopian negus, and a church supposedly constructed by him deep inside a volcanic cave. From what I know it sounds an extraordinary, uncanny and bizarre place. The church is constructed of wood, and behind it lie the mummified bodies of some 10,000 pilgrims and workmen. At the front of the cave is a spring that supposedly has healing properties.

You can get a sense of the place from this video:

Having all this in mind (although I was lucky to be pre-informed – there were no programme notes), I parsed the work as a brass/percussion duo, in which the two brass enacted or suggested a complex of ghostly presences, fear, precariousness, mortality, presence. There’s an obvious apocalypse/trumpets route through there, but aspects of the sinuous counterpoint, rhythm and over-abundance of material made it richer than that. The percussion meanwhile was arranged in three clear sections: scrubbing brushes on bongo skins; tom-toms, bongos and congas played with Thai sticks (the passage mentioned above); and vibraphone (motor off, very hard sticks). One could hear this as a journey – outside/inside? arid/liquid? towards clarity? revelation? That’s a thematically appropriate but very literal reading; actually the shifts in the brass/percussion balance that take place throughout the piece complicate this picture.

There was an interesting continuity between Sergeant’s piece and Paulding’s where dust is in their mouths and clay is their food, in which similar instrumentation is brought to bear on another perspective on the afterlife. Again the brass appeared as the conduit to another world, but with the Messianic clangour of yimrehanne krestos replaced by something more ungraspable, internal, fearful.

I’ve already introduced the piece, but on the night it wasn’t without its surprises. Most unexpected was the rice which, having been poured into a collection of shallow trays and bowls, is struck like conventional percussion, causing clouds of grain to fly into the air, a beautiful and intentional visual effect. The overall soundworld was also much more fragile than its score suggests, a realm of apparitions of sound from all three players.

The concert ended with Barrett’s CODEX IV, a guided improvisation in which the four players made maximal use of the sounds, mutes and percussion instruments already on stage to close the concert with a network of incidental sonic connections.

And then it was time to sweep the rice.

Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown

I wasn’t there last Saturday, in Huddersfield Town Hall at the dead of night. So I can only write a compromised response to a partial experience. Richard Barrett’s music is so inherently physical in the way it is conceived and arranged – disposed and composed – that anything not in the flesh is almost not there at all.

Well, I exaggerate, but listening to CONSTRUCTION via Radio 3’s online broadcast falls even shorter than usual of the complete picture. CONSTRUCTION is a work so detailed in its working-out, so expansive and spatial in its design, that a stereo stream (even in HD) will always be found wanting.

But here goes.

More than two hours in length, CONSTRUCTION has occupied Barrett for at least six years. Its programme note advertises it in 20 separate parts, but its shape is more complicated than a simple list. Wounds I–V, for example are as much the five movements of a miniature violin concerto as they are separate pieces (although most (?all) have already been performed as such). All of the 20 ‘movements’ of CONSTRUCTION belong to one of four such cycles running throughout the work. And CONSTRUCTION itself, of course, belongs to the much larger cycle of compositions Resistance and Vision.

Another of those CONSTRUCTION movements, heliocentric, is itself a tessellation of several smaller Barrett works to have emerged in recent years. These include the clarinet duo Hypnerotomachia, the flugelhorn and trombone duo Aurora, and the flute and recorder duo Città del sole (now renamed Adocentyn).

Any one of these duos is therefore a work within a work within a cycle within a work within a cycle. As CONSTRUCTION unfolds in real time, the upper and lower boundaries of that ecosystem – the little duo and the overall cycle – are invisible. We are somewhere in the middle, a chosen screenshot within an animated fractal dive. Extending the ecosystem metaphor, perhaps somewhere on the level of organisms or communities.

This sounds like an impossibly complicated design, its execution over nearly 150 minutes a utopian folly. And it’s probably meant to come across that way – utopias, and their relationship to the poorer reality in which we live, is the work’s underlying subject. However, because it is a work of art, it is able to put its own idealism into action, to send it out into the world and let it concretise into an existence of its own.

There’s more here than it is possible to write about. (Perhaps that’s why, as I write myself on Tuesday evening, I can find no other reviews from press or blogs.)

Some favourite things: the sudden emergence of familiar elements from Aurora or Wound II; the rotating solar system, ordered and chaotic, of heliocentric; the blend of electronics and acoustic instruments; the devastating control of one colossal span of time; the staggering instrumental colour.

Some things that either surprised me or still need processing: the children’s playground recording; the final ‘resolution’ of the work’s own utopian goals into improvisation.

For now, that’s all I can manage. CONSTRUCTION is available on the BBC’s iPlayer until the end of the week. I suggest you have a listen.

Richard Barrett’s CONSTRUCTION at HCMF

Although there is a strong line up at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival there’s no doubt, I think, what the highlight will be: Saturday night’s world premiere of Richard Barrett’s CONSTRUCTION.

Years in the making, CONSTRUCTION was originally commissioned by  Liverpool City Council, while the city was 2008 European Capital of Culture. Whether it will ever performed in the city that paid for it remains to be seen. But for now, Huddersfield is the lucky recipient.

CONSTRUCTION is a two-hour work for three voices, ensemble, electronics and ‘sound house’, composed as in twenty parts, arranged as four interlocking cycles. It includes duos, solos, pieces for electronics, a group improvisation, a song cycle and a miniature violin concerto.  One is tempted to call it the most ambitious project by this composer of ambitious projects, except that CONSTRUCTION itself forms just one part of Resistance and Vision, a massive, utopian cycle of works that is a more a philosophical theme than a realizable event. (Other works in the R&V cycle include Mesopotamia for chamber orchestra and NO for orchestra.)

ELISION will be the performers on Saturday; you can read more about the piece on their site. Sound and Music have also produced a video trailer. I doubt tickets are available at this stage, but the whole thing is being broadcast on Radio 3 from 10:30 pm. Set your digital recorders.

CONSTRUCTION breaks down into lots of pieces that can stand on their own. Several have appeared previously on these pages: see RB’s comments on Aurora here and my review of Hypnerotomachia here. I also reviewed Wound II here.

The first essential new music CD of 2011?

Domink Karski: Streamforms
Brian Ferneyhough: Unity Capsule
Evan Johnson: L’art de toucher le clavecin, 2*
Malin Bång: Alpha Waves
Salvatore Sciarrino: Venere che le grazie la fioriscono
John Croft: … ne l’aura che trema
Richard Barrett: Inward**

Richard Craig, flute
Karin Hellqvist, violin*
Pontus Langendorf, percussion**

Métier MSV28517

There may have been a time, in the late 70s/early 80s, when Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule sounded like an unrepeatable new benchmark for modern flute writing. Yet programmed among works by Dominik Karski, Evan Johnson, Malin Bång, John Croft and Richard Barrett, even this radical classic seems to breathe the air of an older planet. Another modern standard, Sciarrino’s Venere che le Grazie la fioriscono, written 13 years later, paradoxically seems even more remote.

If Richard Craig has recorded some of Unity Capsule‘s descendants on this quite brilliant CD the resemblances are rarely straightforward. The thing about children is that you don’t get to choose which bits of genetic code get passed on. Stockhausen would advise his students ‘If you want to become famous just take a magnifying glass and put it to one of my scores, and what you see there, just multiply that for five years’, and if Unity Capsule has an inheritance it appears on this evidence to have taken this sort of select and zoom form.

The pieces by Karski and Bång are the closest sonically (apart from the Sciarrino they are also the only other pieces for unadorned solo flute); Johnson further problematises the role of notational (and musical) redundancy; Croft vastly expands the world within and without the instrument; and Barrett is, supposedly, one of Ferneyhough’s most direct descendants.

But one shouldn’t assume those sorts of contacts. Barrett’s piece Inward (along with the pieces by Johnson and Croft one of three heart-achingly beautiful tracks here) surrounds the flute in a fragile halo of percussion, a hint of the wider halo that the piece possesses in its other incarnations as the core of Schneebett, itself the third movement of the cycle Opening of the Mouth. The image is one of withdrawal or enshrouding, an almost spiritual internalisation, that is ultimately undone by a series of six monstrous percussion strikes. Something I’ve long admired about Inward, and this section of Opening of the Mouth, is how it employs East Asian sonic signifiers – flute, bell trees, bamboo sticks, Thai gong, temple block – but negotiates its way around a plastic, Orientalist presentation. The fact that Barrett invites such comparisons and then responds to them as part of his music’s expressive argument is the sort of thing that sets him far apart from the more aesthetically-minded Ferneyhough.

Karski’s Streamforms is the most melodic of all the pieces here, in the sense that it is concerned with exploring variations of a single parameter within otherwise stable fields over relatively sustained periods of time, which in a roundabout way will bring you a tune. I’m not sure that’s precisely the composer’s intention, but it is the effect of his piece, which in spite of its incursions and disruptions deals largely in extended lines and arcs. Malin Bång is a completely new name to me; her Alpha Waves borrows the metaphor of sleep cycles and switches sharply between a variety of events ranging from the calm to the violent (including some extraordinary growling sounds).

Richard Craig giving the premiere of Streamforms, live performance, Stockholm, 2009

The two best new works, however, are those by Johnson and Croft. Coming after the Sciarrino, which ends with a flat, focussed stream of tongue slaps and breath noises, Croft’s fantasia for alto flute and electronics is like stepping onto another world. The title alludes to ‘the air that trembles’ that Dante encounters in the first circle of hell, inhabited the ancient poets and philosophers, before crossing into the second circle, the realm of the excessively passionate and, rather like the Barrett, there is a sense of both withdrawing and projecting, an almost erotic play with a threshold. In its own way, Johnson’s L’art de toucher le clavecin for piccolo and violin similarly toys with boundaries. But here the path is more tentatively trodden; at times even the border itself seems to evaporate. The dialogue – hence the reference to Couperin’s instructional pamphlet – is between ground and ornament, but everything is ultra-cautiously proposed, bundled under fantastic layers of contingencies and securities. It sounds like the recipe for a health and safety nightmare, but Johnson’s skill is for extracting something rare and precious from out of such pressure.

And what of those two classics? Craig’s Sciarrino is much more reserved and less overtly dramatised than some others, such as Alter Ego’s 1999 recording. (The CDs title – Inward – seems more and more apt.) It’s less instantly captivating as a result, but I think gains a Pan-like mystery in return. His Unity Capsule is a full five minutes (nearly a third) shorter than Paula Rae’s premiere recording with ELISION from 1998 (which is too languid for my taste) and still four minutes shorter than Kolbeinn Bjarnason’s much tighter performance of 2002. The details fly by at a hell of lick, in fact but, crucially and miraculously, not at the expense of precision. This is a performance that is dense – high resolution – but not hurried. Craig instills the piece – so often caricatured as a Sisyphean struggle against an unyielding notation – with fearsome confidence, swagger even. Thirty-five years on its challenges may have been parried, absorbed, reflected and dispersed anew, but it speaks now with a commanding and often beautiful authority.

Update, 9 Sept 2011: This disc is now available on Spotify. If you have Spotify, you should listen to it.

(A shorter review of this CD, by Peter Grahame Woolf, is at Musical Pointers.)

Spirit Weapons – ELISION at Kings Place this Monday

It has taken a little while to get the programme finalised, but ELISION’s next concert at Kings Place (this Monday, 15th November) looks like a doozy:

Michael Finnissy Hinomi (1979), for solo percussion

Newton Armstrong Unsaying (2010), for solo violoncello and voice

Evan Johnson hyphen (2002), for solo crotales

Jeroen Speak Epeisodos (1998), for solo Eb clarinet

Richard Barrett Abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben (1992-96), for solo percussion

Liza Lim The Quickening/Spirit Weapons (2005/10), for soprano and violoncello

It’s quite a percussion-heavy programme, so a great opportunity to enjoy the skills of the amazing Peter Neville, and the appearance of Deborah Kayser in a Newton Armstrong premiere and a version of Liza Lim’s The Quickening reworked especially for this concert adds an extra special gloss. I’ve said it before – do not miss. Get more details and tickets here.

While I’m at it, ELISION-heads and fans of extreme notated music should be pretty excited about the release of two new ELISION CDs on Huddersfield University’s HCR label. Full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes for these, but that also means I’ve been listening to the tapes for a while now, and they are very special indeed. The CDs will be officially launched at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on 23 November.