Rambler releases of 2020

In no particular order, some of my favourite releases of 2020.

Liza Lim: Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (KAIROS)

An essential release of what will surely be one of the most important, powerful and original compositions of the decade. A transformative work in Lim’s career, you can hear in real time the disintegration of her previous compositional voice and its metamorphic re-emergence from the rubble. Shoring fragments (Janáček, Chinese astrology, the songs of extinct birds) against her ruin, this is a musical Wasteland for the age of the climate crisis.

Moor Mother: Circuit City (Don Giovanni)

Bleak, angry, restorative, hopeful. Camae Ayewa was a howl of productivity against 2020’s numerous oppressions. Circuit City, an album I listened to and excavated day after day in December, just pipped Offering, with Nicole Mitchell, released earlier in the lockdown.

Clara Iannotta: Earthing (WERGO)

One of a number of composers who have broken through into something much deeper and darker in the last few years (see also Tim McCormack and Iannotta’s teacher Chaya Czernowin): there’s a doom-core/drone metal vibe to Iannotta’s second CD that one can hear permeating the music of several other composers at the moment. Few do it with Iannotta’s lightness of touch, though.

Beatriz Ferryra: Echos+ (Room40)

I knew nothing of Beatriz Ferryra before this year, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The trio of new works released as Huellas Entreveradas (Persistence of Sound) in May revealed an important and singular voice in contemporary electronic composition. But this collection of earlier pieces, released a couple of months before, was the real knockout, epitomised by the previously unreleased title piece from 1978, a ghostly collage created from the voice of her late niece.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift)

Released in early January, Anna Höstman’s album of piano solos, played by Cheryl Duvall, is a capsule from an entirely other era. We shouldn’t forget that other life, though, and Harbour is a reminder of a more careless, casually meandering, simply beautiful time. Brief review here.

Linda Catlin Smith: Meadow (Louth CMS)

Any new recording of Linda Catlin Smith’s music is to be welcomed, but this issue of Meadow, released by Louth Contemporary Music Society near the very end of the year (launch event on 11 December here) feels very special. A 30-minute string trio, Meadow scrapes a little deeper into the influences of early music that frequently run beneath the surface of Smith’s music: like a Dufay motet it conveys an atmosphere of melody and polyphony without constraint, but also of contemplation and extraordinary warmth. If Höstman caught the end of the pre-pandemic world, maybe her Canadian contemporary points to a future after it.

Sarah Hennies: The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)

2020 feels like it was the breakthrough year for composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies. Last September’s Reservoir 1 made many end-of-2019 lists, but this year that position has been built upon and, remarkably, expanded with two releases: Spectral Malsconcities and The Reinvention of Romance. Both records are examples of a stark yet organic minimalism, characterised by patience, sensitivity and unsettling tension. The latter just pips it though for its capturing of love in the time of Covid – a negotiation of shared spaces, intimacies and solitudes.

Daniel Lentz and Ian William Craig: In a Word (RVNG Intl.)

When I was invited to contribute marketing notes to this album I knew nothing of Ian William Craig’s haunted combination of classically trained voice and crippled technologies, but I was quickly sold on his music’s haunted nostalgia. In combination with Daniel Lentz’s expansive piano minimalism, In a Word (the sixteenth in RVNG’s FRKWYS series of intergenerational collaborations) conjures something between the disintegrating texture of William Basinski and the yearning ghost of Schubert song. Wonderful.

Milana Zarić and Richard Barrett: Mirage (Strange Strings)

Typically for him, Richard Barrett has taken the circumstances of the pandemic and lockdown as a prompt to reexamine the fundamentals of his practice. In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, he began a reassessment of his work in view of what responsible artists should do in the face of war and parliamentary deceit – a process that began with the orchestral work NO and culminated (although did not end) with 2012’s CONSTRUCTION. In 2020 he has sought ways in which to turn enforced isolation to his advantage – no small challenge for a composer whose work is so enmeshed with performance and collaboration. One outcome has been a turn to electronic composition, documented on strange lines and distances; another is the development of the duo with his partner, harpist Milana Zarić, begun with Barrett’s 2013 work for harp and electronics tendril, but taking on a new significance with the curtailment of all other shared performance opportunities in 2020. nocturnes was one of my compositional highlights of last year, and the new pieces mirage, restless horizon and sphinx highlight still further Barrett’s refusal to constrain his imagination.

Angharad Davies/Tim Parkinson: The Quarantine Concerts (Experimental Sound Studio/YouTube)

The March lockdown represented a fundamental challenge to every musician on the planet. Many are still finding it hard to produce work under pandemic conditions. One composer who came fast out of the gates, even found the constrictions a spur to creativity, was Tim Parkinson. Parkinson’s 2020 album Here Comes a Monster (Takuroko) was released in May 2020, and somehow already incorporated compositional responses to quarantine. But this even earlier performance, from the first month of Experimental Sound Studio’s (still-running) Quarantine Concerts series stuck with me (at a time when I, for one, still found it hard to engage with new music) for its whimsical reinvention of Parkinson’s opera Time with People, played by him and Angharad Davies using Playmobil toy figures. For more like that, see also the split-screen performance with James Saunders, 24 Preludes.

Bastard Assignments: Lockdown Jams (Bastard Assignments/YouTube)

Trust BA to make 2020 even weirder and more unsettling. The Lockdown Jams emerged from short studies in making experimental music theater over Zoom and Google Hangouts, but quickly grew into a series of commissioned works by (among others) Marcela Lucatelli, Neil Luck, Alexander Schubert, Elaine Mitchener and Tommaso Petrolo, and Jennifer Walshe. As the series has gone on, the Lockdown Jams have taken an increasingly classical approach to Zoom/isolation aesthetics (see Walshe’s zusammen iii, and Thick and Tight’s wonderful Woking), but the early instantiations capture like nothing else the unravelling, baffling, inexpertly improvisational mess that was spring 2020. Read my review here.


Something experimental for the weekend

News of two tasty treats in London this weekend, organised by John Lely and featuring US West Coast composers Laura Steenberge and Michael Winter:

7.30pm Friday 7 October 2016 @ IKLECTIK
JOHN LELY – All About the Piano
MICHAEL WINTER – room and seams
TIM PARKINSON – No.3, No.4, No.5 (2016)
JÜRG FREY – Circular Music No. 6
Performed by Mira Benjamin, Angharad Davies, Anton Lukoszevieze, Tim Parkinson, Laura Steenberge, Michael Winter.
Tickets £7/£5
Old Paradise Yard
20 Carlisle Lane (Royal Street corner) next to Archbishop’s Park
London SE1 7LG
3.30pm Sunday 9 October 2016 @ Hundred Years Gallery
MICHAEL WINTER – tergiversate
JOHN LELY – Second Symphony
MICHAEL WINTER – necklaces
Performed by Mira Benjamin, Angharad Davies, Dominic Lash, Anton Lukoszevieze, Tim Parkinson, Laura Steenberge, Michael Winter.
Tickets £5
13 Pearson Street
London E2 8JD

Parkinson Saunders coming to Kings Place

I haven’t decided which side of ‘secret’ concerts at Kings Place sit on, so I don’t always include them in my Secret Music listings. I know, rod for my own …

However, if you’re in London on 11 May – rather than in Glasgow for Tectonics, Leeds for the Freiburg/Leeds percussion ensembles, or Oxford for Riot Ensemble’s Zivkovic premiere – then you probably do want to know about this:

Sunday 11 May: Kings Place, London | Parkinson Saunders | 4pm | £9.50

Tim Parkinson and James Saunders bring their irreverent experimentalism to Kings Place with a concert of new pieces by Tim Parkinson, Stefan Thut, Matteo Fargion, James Saunders, John White and Travis Just.

I’ve been told there will be shouting, Brazilian rhythms, box pushing, noise guitar, story telling and even a little voluntary audience participation. Should be excellent.

Music We’d Like to Hear 2013

Summer may have forgotten to turn up this year, but Music We’d Like to Hear can’t be stopped. Everyone’s favourite series of three concerts curated by three composers is back.

But don’t get complacent: for its ninth season, the series has moved to a new venue and a new day of the week. The following shows all take place on Fridays, and all at the Church of St Mary-at-Hill, off Eastcheap, London EC3R 8EE. (Nearest tube: Monument. Take Fish Street Hill exit and turn left, then right along Eastcheap. Follow sign for St Mary’s down Lovat Lane on your right.)

First show is one week from today.

Markus Trunk

MWLTH Ensemble

Craig ShepardFour Voice Canon
Kunsu ShimBuch
Eva Maria Houbensome tunes
John WhiteNewspaper Reading Machine
Mieko ShiomiWind Music
Daniel James WolfThe Long March

John Lely
12th July VIOLIN

Mira Benjamin, solo violin (Bozzini Quartet, Montreal)

Jürg FreyWen 3
Jürg Frey – A Memory of Perfection
Paul Newlandmukei
Richard Glover – new work
Tim Parkinsonviolin piece 2006
Cassandra MillerFor Mira

Tim Parkinson
19th July CELLO

Anton Lukoszevieze, cello
Tim Parkinson, piano

Jürg Frey – Two Pieces
Christian WolffCello Suite Variation
Jonathan MarmorCattle in the Woods
Matteo Fargion11 Notturni
Luiz Henrique YudoFive Palindromes
Julia EckhardtSpeling #4

Wandelweiser’s Jürg Frey and Manfred Werder in interview

Remember those excellent little video interviews Tim Parkinson made of Richard Emsley, Chris Newman and John White? Well, Tim has produced two more, this time on the Wandelweiser composers Jürg Frey and Manfred Werder. It’s worth taking the time to watch them all, but the film on Werder, in which he talks about his use of textual quotations as scores, is particularly intriguing.

Jürg Frey
Part 1

Part 2

Manfred Werder
Part 1

Part 2


Improvisation and Composition at King’s College

This looks like a great little concert that could easily fall below the radar:

An Evening of Improvisation and Composition
The St Davids Room, King’s College, The Strand, London
Tuesday 21st September

Admission £5

James Allsopp (tenor saxophone) – Improvisation

Lawrence Williams (saxophone) and Jane Dickson (piano) – December 1952, Earle Brown

Tim Parkinson (piano) and Angharad Davies (violin) – violin and piano piece (2009), Tim Parkinson

Jennifer Allum (violin) and Ute Kanngiesser (‘cello) – Improvisation

British experimental composers on video

As a footnote to the first of the Music We’d Like to Hear roundtables, I must draw your attention to Tim Parkinson’s series of composer interviews on Youtube. These are all really valuable documents of composers who don’t get much of the light, but if you watch only one make it the one on Chris Newman.

Richard Emsley

Chris Newman

Michael Parsons

John White

Rambler Roundtables: Music We’d Like to Hear 1

I rave about it enough on these pages for Music We’d Like to Hear not to need much of an introduction. But this year, following up on my online symposia with ELISION in spring, I thought I’d gather a few of the composers involved in MWLTH 2010 to chat a little about what they do and how they think.

In this, the first of two posts (the second is here), Tim Parkinson, Markus Trunk and Michael Winter discuss Cage, tradition and the nature of ‘experimental’ music.

Tim Parkinson is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Markus Trunk, of Music We’d Like to Hear, a series of curated concerts of experimental music in London. He is also a pianist and performer, both independently and also by invitation, and has played with Apartment House and Plus-Minus.

Markus Trunk is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Tim Parkinson, of Music We’d Like to Hear .

Michael Winter is a composer, curator, music theorist and software designer. He co-founded and co-directs (with fellow composer Eric km Clark) the wulf., a non-profit arts organization that presents music free to the public in Los Angeles.

The next Music We’d Like to Hear concert is this Wednesday at the Church of St Anne and St Agnes, and features music from the wulf.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Do we still need Cage? More than 50 years after his seminal works and writings on experimental music, his aesthetic still seems the touchstone for many composers. Why is this? And when do we move on? Should we? Is there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become ‘classical’ (as opposed to innovative or modern)?

Tim Parkinson: I can’t really talk for a we. I can only talk about me.

I don’t tend to believe in thinking of music historically. Any music is new music if I haven’t heard it before. Historical context is a kind of concept. When I hear any new music the question is whether it means anything to me.

A lot of Cage’s music and ideas are obviously still challenging to some people. I’m playing this piece [one5] because I’ve always wanted to, because it was important to me at one point. I suppose I could say that when I heard it for the first time, I discovered that I had a need for it. Now I have a memory of that experience and I’d like to have it again. Also within the context of the programme, it’s exactly the piece I wanted to display one particular aspect of the piano, which the programme is focused around. The piece by Craig Shepard is from another angle. The dismissal that arises out of having some background knowledge of the composer or the music is the lazy habit of believing in primacy of concept over experience – Cage on the programme, oh we know what that is. But the sound of a specific piano playing it at a specific time and place is not the recording on the CD. That’s where I heard it first of course, coming out of my speakers. But that’s a fixed and dead photograph of the music, not a living thing. So I would like to hear it alive. I don’t know that this piece is even played that much. One of the nice things about Cage is that I think I know what it’s gonna sound like, but then it’s always different and unique.

People don’t know what they might need, unless they’re given an opportunity to experience new things, to find out whether they need it or not.

Regarding your question ‘isn’t there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become classical’ – I think this is certainly true. To me, I think some of those pieces from the 50s by Cage, Brown, and Feldman have come to sound very classical now. In other words, evidence of a past exploration, but now, to an extent, known. And there are people who play this music very well, specialise in it, but don’t seem to move on to either later or lesser known works by these people, or music with a similar stance from today. Perhaps for them there is still endless potential in these works. But I would still love to hear later Cage pieces that rarely get performed these days, like Etcetera or Renga or something. I don’t know quite what they are yet. They haven’t been allowed to mature by multiple performances in the same way that, say, Vertical Thoughts has.

Tim R-J: Does ‘experimental music’ mean something different today from earlier definitions provided by Cage, Nyman, etc? Is it a valid description at all? What isn’t experimental music?

Tim Parkinson: This is a tricky one for me since my attention is more drawn towards the activities of individuals, rather than the establishment of a category. In two recent video portraits I did, John White talks about experimental music as being a historical label now, whereas Michael Parsons talks about it as being an attitude, a starting from scratch. Both are true I think. Perhaps one of the reasons why it’s not well represented in education (and concert programmes and public broadcasting) is that the assortment of people and work involved in that which has been called experimental is in actuality too broad and diverse to be able to present it neatly. It’s not a Style. The English experimentalism of the 70s is very different to that of New York in the 50s; I know someone, an advocate of one, who finds the other very difficult to understand for example.

Disregarding history again, I feel closer to Michael’s description. Music that starts from nothing, from the basics. As opposed to that which starts from a style, or which already starts from a notion of what music is. There’s already a huge amount of historical baggage to have to deal with if you want to make a new piece for the piano. Michael talks about starting from a Tabula Rasa, Chris Newman talks about clearing all the crap out of the way, before starting to make a new piece. Kerouac made an analogy about turning on the cold tap and letting it run until it runs cold.

I also often think of Jasper Johns’ words ‘Sometimes I see it and then paint it; sometimes I paint it then see it’. I think this is very important also, the importance of the phenomenon, in our case, the resultant sound. Not the importance of Composition over Sound.

I’m very fascinated by the distinction between sound and music. When starting I know I’ll be dealing in sounds, but when finished it sounds like music. I don’t start out to make music, I know that music will take care of itself. The question then is whether it means anything to me or not. And in what way.

I very often really don’t know what music is, and I’m always fascinated to hear it when it happens. To marvel at what is it telling me, or what is it doing to me? What is not experimental music then is I suppose that which already thinks it knows what music is, which starts of by writing ‘music’. Of course that’s also why experimental music doesn’t rest comfortably within education, because once people have got to university they are supposed to know what music is and end up by mastering it. Noone wants to be told they can legitimately use pots and pans again like a child if they feel like it. What is definitely not experimental music is the mannerism produced by various academics which perpetrates a lazy unquestioning rhetorical style which simply ‘sounds like contemporary music’. It really bores me to death if I ever have to listen to something like that which goes through the motions, making references to historical models in order to justify its own pointlessness. There’s really nothing new about it at all for me.

So I often think of simply ‘new music’, rather than ‘experimental music’. For all of the above reasons. I’m really excited by something I haven’t heard before. I more often think that I explore, rather than experiment. I’m intrigued by something I never would have thought of as music before. The question then is not simply whether it’s any good or not, but rather throws the question back onto ourselves of what is the relation of one’s own self to the world of organised sound. Because music is a living thing, not a fixed historical art form tradition, it’s a living medium, a natural product of humanity, changing all the time with us in the present and in the world. If we allow it to.

Michael Winter: I agree with Tim P on many fronts and also claim that I am interested in new experiences and the exploration thereof. Also, I am not interested in ‘brands’ and how they are often defined and delineated. Still, as artists, we discuss these matters and the discourse is important. Writings by Cage and Nyman are wonderful and influential. Even now, the discourse is evolving. Joe Kudirka is currently working on a thesis where he, in a very deep way, discusses his approach to a definition of experimental music. Still, I hope that Joe’s writings (as seminal as I think the thesis will be), puts a nail in that coffin.

Sometimes I wonder why we are concerned with what is and what isn’t, who is and who isn’t. I have recently been looking at the Fluxus archive at the Getty. I have so much interest in the people, the ideas, and the work, but when you read their letters to each other about who and what is Fluxus, it is actually saddening. Fortunately, they did not let their grievances stop them from making art and they were so, so prolific.

At this point in music, anything goes: any material, any process, etc.. That is not the question anymore. As artists, we should not burden ourselves with how we sit historically. We should acknowledge our influences and just explore. I think Tim brings up a good point about people and their ideas. My favorite people, the ones I believe explore some of the most compelling ideas, are and were so knowledgeable about the past and about the people that influenced them. This enabled them to explore ideas that are truly new and set into motion unforeseen situations.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. I happen to be blessed with a bad memory, so situations often seem new to me. Regardless, learning as much about the past and keeping an open mind are both crucial in the pursuit of new experiences. Only then, can we ‘start from scratch’. In my opinion, making music is not necessarily about clearing one’s mind, but rather about filling it up to the extent possible. That creates the equilibrium of ideas and possibilities necessary to move forward and even provide a focus or limited scope that helps elucidate exactly what it is that we are exploring/experimenting with. We pursue the void, the cracks and crevasses that lie hidden in a wealth of currently known information. We only realize that we have arrived at a new experience when we are presented with it. Then, we continue on, tuning our actions and reactions every step of the way in hopes for even more new experiences. This is the attitude of exploration. Call it experimental music if you like.

Markus Trunk: I think both of you have done a beautiful job at answering/subverting the question.  So I may be mostly just echoing you …  I also feel like I’m the wrong person to ask – I don’t think I have described myself as experimental very often, and if I did only because it seemed better to have some description than no description at all.  But that term has come to encompass very different things, in some cases purely invoking a historical connection.

For example, I’m not sure how a John White piano sonata is experimental except by affiliation.  Similarly, the fact that I may not know at the beginning of the writing process what its outcome will be, or to find a different solution to what “makes a piece”, is maybe not enough for it to be classed as an experiment – many of those academic “rhetorical” composers so aptly described by Tim would lay claim to doing exactly that.

I think a focus on sound and process instead of historically grown syntax may be a more useful characteristic of much of the music we are thinking of than the model of the experiment.  On the other hand I’m sometimes wondering whether some of the Wandelweiser type composers aren’t themselves resorting to an already established syntax.

What I do like is the notion of the clean slate even though that is just another metaphor.  The main task always seems to be to free myself from preconceptions of what a piece of music, say for a particular combination of instruments, should be like (Tim P’s ‘notion of what music is’), not to pre-judge the ‘material’ at hand, or a particular performance situation.

Still, out of the MWLTH lot I’m probably the least experimental one.  I don’t normally perform, never developed a real interest in collaboration – I am very much old school at heart!  I basically produce definitive scores, and rely on specialised experts to realise them.

Tim R-J: As Tim P suggests, education (and broadcasting and other institutions) enforce ways of collecting and organizing disparate groups of people under certain banners – what we might call ‘experimental music’ is just one such banner. So resistance to such labels is obviously highly desirable.

But then, as Markus points out with his example of the Wandelweiser composers, those labels may grow internally (inevitably?), from the evolution and concretisation of common rhetorics, syntaxes etc. Setting out in a spirit of exploration is one thing, but is it also necessary to have a historical sense so that one can be aware of (and thus subvert/critique/avoid) any such inherited rhetoric? We’re back to the ‘classical’ again …

Tim P: Development of a syntax is probably organic. I mean we all end up acting like each other to a certain extent, people adopting phrases and ways of speaking from TV or films, the feedback loop of communication anyway.

I suppose because Wandelweiser is a name, it becomes synonymous with a brand, which is where the dangers lie. I am always very wary of generalisations because to a certain degree they are a lie. (And there I am; Generalising.) My comment when people talk about ‘Wandelweiser music’ is that it’s a very diverse group of composers. Some of them I feel closer to than others. Also it is just the name of a publishing organisation, so one might as well talk about Edition Peters composers for example.

I often think of de Kooning’s words: ‘You are with a group or movement because you cannot help it’.

It’s not anything I turn my attention to, I think being self-conscious about it leads one to a hall of mirrors. My concern is more focussed on authenticity than worrying about adopting syntax. I’m always interested afterwards when music has resonance with other music. I mean Beethoven is as much in my house as everyone else. I also often think of what Matteo Fargion said to me once: ‘Everything sounds like everything else’.

Music We’d Like to Hear 2010

Just a reminder that the best concert series in town starts again tomorrow night. DO NOT MISS IT.

Markus Trunk
Music We’d Like to Hear I
30 June 2010
Christian Wolff – the death of mother jones
Markus Trunk – four stills
Tim Parkinson – violin piece (1999)
John Lely – the harmonics of real strings
7:30 | Church of St Anne and St Agnes | £9 (£6)

Some Music You’d Like to Know About

They’ve kept it quiet, but the programme for this year’s Music We’d Like to Hear concerts is now out, and it looks as enticing as ever:

30th June 2010
7:30 p.m.
Music We

Christian Wolff – The Death of Mother Jones
Markus Trunk – Four stills
Tim Parkinson – violin piece (1999)
John Lely – The Harmonics of Real Strings

Clemens Merkel – violin
(Bozzini Quartet, Montreal)

7th July 2010
7:30 p.m.
Music We

music from the wulf.

Mike Winter – for Gregory Chaitin
Mike Winter – rooms and seams
Joseph Kudirka – a round
Taylan Susam – nocturnes
Gary Schultz – cards
Laura Steenberge – elevator music
Eric km Clark – deprivation music #1

Orchestra We’d Like to Hear

14th July 2010
7:30 p.m.
Music We

John Cage – One5
Craig Shepard – December
Lee Patterson – new work for piano (supported with funds from PRS for Music Foundation)

Tim Parkinson – piano
Lee Patterson – piano

All concerts: £9 (£6) | Church of St Anne and St Agnes, Gresham Street, London EC2V

And here’s a short video ad: