Cut and Splice 2005: John Cage, Yasunao Tone, Signal (Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender)

Returning to the archives, here’s an eclectic variety of electronic music from the 2005 Cut and Splice Festival in London, beginning with the archetypal cut and splice work, John Cage‘s Williams Mix. The piece sounds as wonderfully kaleidoscopic as ever, its fast-edit approach causing much the same effect as 4’33”, rendering no sound incongruous, and its all-too-brief duration still surprisingly modern after more than 50 years. In Paramedia-Centripetal by Japanese composer Yasunao Tone, the music emanates from Tone’s ‘performance’ on a graphics tablet of a number of calligraphic symbols, and i suspect this was more engaging to witness than it is merely to listen to; bereft of visuals, the material itches frenetically throughout, with occasional similarities to the sharp juxtapositions of Cage’s piece (and towards the end, to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango), but ever with the sense that something important was missing. Indeed, after a while, the comparative similarity of the material coupled to its relatively narrow pitch range (deep bass sounds are virtually non-existent), and lengthy duration (almost half an hour) lend the piece a dull, even irritating quality.

The festival included a focus on three composers associated with the German Raster-Noton label: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Olaf Bender (aka Byetone). An interview with Frank Bretschneider is illuminating, particularly when he speaks of the issues he and the related composers experienced when first presenting their music, and how it relates to electronic, contemporary and other traditions. Bretschneider comments on the disinterest shown by record labels towards their work, as it didn’t (he says) correspond to existing traditions in contemporary music; although why no-one felt the connection to minimalism is beyond me. With its emphasis on rhythm, and without depending on tired quasi-‘tonal’ harmonic ideas, it’s the kind of minimalism i can engage with; it’s “in your face”, confronting the listener with unavoidable glitches, blips and poundings, and all the better for it. Bretschneider’s untitled piece that follows is a superb example of this, exciting and irresistible, at times seeming to evoke the complexity of African drumming patterns.

Before his own untitled piece, Carsten Nicolai speaks about the origins of the rhythmic aspect of the Raster-Noton music, unsurprisingly alluding to the grid-like nature of modern technology (and of course providing the word “raster”), but—to me at least—surprisingly referencing free jazz as an influence. It’s fascinating to hear of the painstaking process involved; Nicolai speaks of paring down the music and taking a lot of time to select just the right sounds. Mention of tradition returns here, and the connection seems more solid than before; Nicolai comes across with a far greater sense of knowing, with regard to his music, ‘whence it came’. The “paring down” of which Nicolai spoke is arguably the most apparent characteristic of his piece (and, indeed, a great deal of his output). It’s an almost ascetically barren soundscape that he explores, shaped with very gradual, subtle rhythmic development, and ever underpinned by deep bass bursts. For all its activity, it’s remarkable how sparse it sounds; the connection to (in my opinion) the master of pure electronics, Ryoji Ikeda, is powerfully apparent.

Finally the programme tacetly introduces Olaf Bender, whose most recent album as Byetone, Death of a Typographer, snuck into the tail end of my Best Albums of 2008. If Bretschneider is Schoenberg, and Nicolai is Webern, then Bender is very much the Berg of this trio, his works often accompanied by a warm ambience that tends to be absent from much Raster-Noton output (Nicolai’s much-lauded collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto notwithstanding). However, none of that is evident in the final, untitled pieces that they perform together as Signal; the first is a driving, rhythmic piece, of which Kraftwerk would seem to be éminence grise (visually too, as Signal perform standing behind their computer banks à la Hütter and Schneider). After a time it disperses somewhat, before a gritty bass oscillation kick-starts the material and propels it forward once again; overall, it’s a stirring and exhilarating piece, nicely captured by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction at the end. It’s followed by a shorter untitled piece, slightly less focused, but exploring compelling, deeper and darker tones.

The recording was made from digital radio onto video cassette, and for the most part the recording is clean and of high quality; however, on occasions—particularly in the Yasunao Tone piece, with its emphasis on high-frequencies—the source is more apparent (as an occasional bass growling). i’ve cleaned it up as best i can, but you have my apologies for the occasional irritations you may well experience; hopefully they won’t detract from the programme as a whole, which is well worth hearing.

John Cage – Williams Mix

Yasunao Tone – Paramedia-Centripetal

Interview with Frank Bretschneider

Frank Bretschneider – Untitled

Carsten Nicolai – Untitled

Signal – Untitled

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