Albums to look out for in 2020

Albums to look out for in 2020

This is the season of end-of-year lists (I’m pleased to see several of my top 10 make it into The Wire‘s albums of the year). But it is also a time of year when many great recordings are still coming out that might get overlooked in twelve months’ time. I want to give quick shoutouts to a few of these that have become aware of in the last few weeks.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift Records)

When I wrote about Canadian experimental composers for The Wire a couple of years ago, Anna Höstman‘s name was one that came up in my research, even though I wasn’t able to write about her at the time. Harbour (released 11 Jan 2020) is an album of piano solos, played with great finesse and concentration by Cheryl Duvall. I emphasise concentration, because Höstman’s music demands a combination of intense mindfulness and extremely long-range thought. Not unlike her compatriot Martin Arnold, she is fascinated by musical lines – rather than encasing structures – that unfurl and loop and roll under their own volition. At points they seem to catch, on a motif or a chord, and at these moments the repetitions bring Feldman to mind. At other times, the music meanders quite carelessly, but somehow always doing enough to hold your attention. The 25-minute title piece, composed in 2015, is particularly sumptuous. One not to miss in 2020.

Robert Haigh: Black Sarabande (Unseen Worlds)

Another record due out at the start of 2020, this is also another one for fans of off-kilter piano music. Haigh’s second album for Unseen Worlds occupies a sonic space filled with hauntological tape hiss, synth pads and almost-out-of-earshot field recordings. Shades of Harold Budd, as well as Vangelis’s Bladerunner, with a harmonic and textural subtlety – a hallmark of Haigh’s work that runs all the back to his drum ‘n’ bass days as Omni Trio – that keeps it all from shading into simple ambience. Unseen Worlds had a tremendous year in 2019; Tommy McCutchon’s label looks to be start strong in 2020 too.

ELISION: world-line (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

It’s great to have a proper recording of Richard Barrett’s world-line, a work that affected me deeply when I first heard it at the Transit festival in Leuven a few years ago. Written for custom-made lap-steel guitar, with percussion, trumpet and electronic accompaniments, it is not only an exemplary instance of Barrett’s interest in bespoke instrumental ergonomics but a moving (and forgivably masculine) portrait of his relationship with Daryl Buckley and ELISION: everyone duets with Daryl’s guitar, and the movement where Daryl and percussionist Peter Neville – partners in music for 30 years – get to improvise on their own is surprisingly touching.

Also on the disc are Timothy McCormack’s subsidence for lap-steel guitar (two players), a 30-minute pitch-black spiral down into slack strings and popping pickups. A seriously dark piece and a great taster for McCormack’s forthcoming portrait disc on Kairos. The CD is completed with Liza Lim’s Roda – The Living Circle, a trumpet solo for Tristram Williams drawn and elaborated from the ensemble work Roda – The Spinning World.

This one is already out: you can see full details at the NMC website.

POST-PRESS ADDITION: David Brynjar Franzson: longitude (Bedroom Community)

Another recent release is David Brynjar Franzson’s longitude, performed by Ensemble Adapter. Composed in moody instrumental and electronic atmospherics – jagged, hissing, perforated sounds that crossfade in and out – it’s a compelling soundscape that I’m sure is even more striking heard live. It’s also an exploration of the extraordinary story of the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen, whose complex involvement in the Napoleonic Wars can be read as both heroic and traitorous: after fighting with the Danish against the British in the Gunboat Wars, he attempted to liberate Iceland from a Danish trade monopoly that was slowly starving its people; he named himself ‘Protector’ of Iceland, but after 40 days he was taken back to England, imprisoned, and eventually became a British spy working in France and Germany.

Over the course of longitude‘s 50 minutes, those sibilant atmospheres take on more emotionally provocative identities: the work is never programmatic (although one is free to imagine in its sounds something of Jørgensen’s voyages across the North Sea between Denmark and Great Britain; the famished state of Rejkyavik that he encountered in 1809; and the whistling harmonics of Scandinavian folk music), but draws one ever-deeper into sonic ambiguities that echo the shifting allegiances and morals of Jørgensen’s life. Worth the investment of time; you can get it through Bandcamp here.

 

Music after the Fall mixtape for The Lake Radio

A fun outcome of my visit to the Borealis Festival last month was an invitation from Jan Stricker of The Lake Radio to produce a new music mixtape for their podcast.

The original brief was that it would accompany an interview with Simon Steen-Andersen and Louise Alenius, so I made sure to include a track by each in there. As for the remaining artists, it’s sort of a Music after the Fall who’s who.

It has been a while since I did anything like this, and while the final result is nowhere near as densely layered as those old Blogariddims mixes, I still had a blast making it. The whole thing was put together in Audacity, texture/mood matching things along the way. Here’s a tracklist with timings:

0:00 Laurence Crane: 20th Century Music. Michael Finnissy, pf (Métier)
2:37 Liza Lim: Tongue of the Invisible. Musikfabrik, Omar Ebrahim, Uri Caine, André de Ridder (Wergo)
8:25 Pamela Z: Pop Titles “You”. (Starkland)
11:33 Chaya Czernowin: Sahaf. Ensemble Nikel (Wergo)
14:21 Simon Steen-Andersen: On and Off and To and Fro. asamisimasa (Dacapo)
18:20 Michael Finnissy: The History of Photography in Sound: I. Le demon de l’analogie. Ian Pace, pf (Métier)
24:26 Peter Garland: Another Sunrise (Mode)
27:57 Peter Ablinger: Morton Feldman, from Voices and Piano (Kairos)
29:21 Louise Alenius: Doctor Treves, from Elephant Man (Louis Alenius)
30:50 Sr. Anselme O’Ceallaigh (Jennifer Walshe): Virtue IV (Migro)
35:46 Richard Barrett: Transmission VI, from DARK MATTER. Daryl Buckley, gui (NMC)

 

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.

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. John Hails and Philipp Blume 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.