Among the crop of more interesting recent releases is a reissue of Messiaen‘s complete organ works that is easily the most affordable currently available. Treasure Island Music has brought together the famous recordings made by Jennifer Bate in the late 1970s/early 1980s—originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana/Regis—in a 6-CD slimline box set costing around £20, which for 7½ hours of music is an exceptional deal. But it’s not just about economy, these performances were extensively shaped by Messiaen himself, Bate working in close collaboration with him during the recording process. Two of the discs were even recorded at La Trinité in Paris, on the very organ where the works were first composed (and, in many cases, premièred), the remaining discs recorded at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais. But it’s not just about having the composer’s imprimatur either; Bate’s renditions of these complex works are navigated with stunning clarity—never is it apparent that these recordings are several decades old—and her fidelity to the scores is in many ways greater than that of Messiaen’s own recordings. Bate has a keen understanding of the esoteric drama underpinning the music; in Apparition De l’Église éternelle, for example, she keeps the music pedestrian, almost prosaic, through its initial iterations, before unleashing the full organ to stunning effect, vividly capturing the eventual unveiling of Messiaen’s ‘apparition’, descending from the heavens. The Nine Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité are especially successful, and while there are umpteen La Nativité du Seigneur‘s available these days (all the more at this time of year), Bate’s recording here is mesmerising (fifth movement ‘Les Enfants de Dieu’ is a real highlight), breathing new life into what is now very familiar music. Messiaen fans new and old—and, indeed, any fans of intrepid organ music—should make a beeline for this wonderful box set.
One of Canada’s great maverick composers, Paul Dolden, has a new CD out on the Starkland label showcasing one of his more recent major works, the title of which could be said to encapsulate much of what Dolden’s music stands for: Who Has the Biggest Sound? It has to be heard to be believed. Dolden’s practice of piling up layer upon layer of instrumental sounds until they become a rockface of highly compacted strata plays its part here, although there’s a clarity running throughout the work’s movements that is refreshing, and a recurring emphasis on beauty that seems to reflect a shift in outlook from his earlier work. All the same, no-one does a full-force tutti like Dolden, and the combination of voices and orchestra is used to initiate some almighty pile-ups, along the way peppered with weird carillon/jazz mash-ups with more superimposed saxes than you could shake a stick at, florid episodes running at Nancarrow-like breakneck speed, rock-out reveries a la Buckethead, Zappa-esque synth ensemble passages and a surreal take on country music. If this makes it sound like the piece is all allusion, it isn’t; every moment screams out (sometimes literally) Dolden’s handiwork, singling him out as one of very few composers prepared to make not the slightest effort at holding back. As electroacoustic onslaughts go, Who Has the Biggest Sound? is simply amazing (head over to YouTube for a sample). It’s coupled with The Un-Tempered Orchestra, a unique exploration of different tuning systems that may well cause the connection between your ears and your brain to malfunction.
Pianist Richard Uttley‘s latest release, Ghosts & Mirrors, is an engrossing selection with a tendency towards, as the title implies, shadows and reflection. The contents are moderately diverse, comprising works by Magnus Lindberg, Thomas Adès, Tristan Murail, Berg, Takemitsu, Mark Simpson and Berio. Uttley’s negotation of the streams of filigree in Lindberg’s six Piano Jubilees is remarkable (it’s as exhausting to listen to as it must be to perform), their eventual ‘purified’ culmination beautifully rich and radiant. But its closing notes are mysterious, and this atmosphere pervades many of the subsequent pieces. Murail’s memorial to Messiaen stays clear of the latter’s own soundworld (the title, however, ‘Cloches D’adieu, et un sourire’, could easily be one of Messiaen’s own), delicate but with some hefty outbursts that shine a bright light on everything. The light in Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II is more overcast, and Uttley practically manages to conjure up grey clouds, in the process softening his touch so that its material feels tender to the touch. Adès’ Mazurkas are characteristically superficial—all froth and play, if that’s your kind of thing—and Berio’s 6 Encores are pleasant enough, if a little over-familiar (which in no way detracts from Uttley’s superb interpretation of them, he makes ‘Luftklavier’ sound astonishing). But for me the real high points on the album are Marvin Wolfthal’s Lulu Fantasy and Mark Simpson’s Barkham Fantasy. Inspired by Liszt’s transcriptions, Wolfthal extracts assorted fragments from Berg’s opera, experimenting with the narrative order “to illuminate interesting relationships”. It really works—and the fact that Wolfthal’s own involvement often seems transparent is a testimony to how much he has assimilated both the essence and details of the original material. Simpson’s work is a searching one, haunted by memory and past musics; a sensation of foreboding is strong, qualified with limpid melodic and tremolandi eruptions that, ultimately, seem less to release tension than ratchet it up further. A lovely, absorbing disc, Ghosts & Mirrors is available from next week on the ARC label, but can be preordered on Amazon now.
Having mentioned the various singles being drip-fed into the world earlier this year, iamamiwhoami‘s latest album Blue has finally been released in all its glory in the last few days. And what glory it is! As with their previous albums, each of the songs feels like a component part in a bigger, overarching argument, utilising the same soundworld, while their respective details are strikingly different. Water is the central theme, and Jonna Lee dives into it not just deeply but passionately. ‘Fountain’ remains one of the most outstanding songs i’ve heard in a long while (the chorus, where Lee’s voice rises and expands, is almost painfully inspiriting); its words speak of a baptism of sorts, after which subsequent adventures can begin. Both ‘Hunting for Pearls’ and ‘Vista’ demonstrate again iamamiwhoami’s uncanny ability to harness elements that hint at electronica from an earlier time (in this case, the ’80s), yet without ever sounding retrospective or even resembling an act of homage. It’s the assertive modernity of their overall sound that accomplishes this, shaped by unexpected harmonic changes and a decidedly imaginative approach to song structure. Each track becomes a kind of variation on a theme, passing through title track ‘Blue Blue’ (as exquisite as it is earworm-inducing) to the climactic ‘Shadowshow’, a song first glimpsed four years ago in a stripped-down live version but here magnified into a vibrant, eastern-influenced slice of the most delectably sublime poptronica. Available directly from the artist in a variety of lovely physical editions, there’s also an immersive digital edition, ‘Blue Island’, that allows access to additional treats, including HD videos and 24-bit audio for all of the songs. The contents of the island have expanded even in the last few days, with iamamiwhoami’s previous releases Bounty and Kin both appearing, making it a veritable treasure trove of some of the most forward-looking electropop around today.
New on Wergo is The Negotiation of Context by Davíð Brynjar Franzson, a three-part series performed by the fabulous Yarn | Wire piano percussion quartet (two of each). Franzson’s fascination is with both the physical actions of music-making as well as the physicality of sound itself. The first part, for piano and pump organ, has more emphasis on a dialogue with pitch, hesitant blink-and-you’ll-miss-them notes from the organ and loud scrapes and clangs on the piano strings leading to a strange, halting duet encompassing extremes, eradicating pitch completely and then only allowing it back via strangulated overtones & wayward bending string twangs. The central part, for two pianos and two bass drums, is only a little longer than its neighbours, yet feels very much more weighty and substantial. Franzson’s approach is the same, the drums are rubbed and tapped, the pianos are muted and plucked, but what emerges is music that sounds like the raw embodiment of a strong kinetic force—one might even call it ‘Newtonian music’. A sense of involvement becomes stronger as it progresses, becoming a kind of game in which the players seek to outdo one another in terms of speed and imitation. This piece benefits from being included also as a video, although there’s something rather wondrous about hearing the music without fully understanding how each of the sounds was made. The final part, for piano and assistant, is a surprise, partly because it sounds like more than one pianist, but more due to the more emotional quality its material conveys. Pitted against a monotonous dull rhythm are plucked notes that coalesce into a melancholic melodic strand, which Franzson brilliantly transforms later, heard via overtones of muted strings—superbly controlled in this recording—becoming a slow, plaintive descent at the end. You’ll never quite look at a piano the same after hearing this remarkable work.
Finally, a release that came out a little while back on the fabulously abyssal Miasmah label. Shivers is both the title and collective nom de geurre of Gareth Davis, Leo Fabriek and Rutger Zuydervelt, and the fact that this name is taken from an early David Cronenberg movie is instructive (plus many of the track titles also draw on Cronenberg’s work). The pervading tone throughout these six pieces is of distortion and contortion, and the pitting against each other of acoustic and electronic forces. The tables turn frequently, often within a single piece, sometimes due to an active event, but sometimes simply due to a gradual shift in one’s perception of what one’s hearing. For example, in opening track ‘Ash’, at first a hollow band of filtered synthetic wind only hints at something acoustic within it; drones emerge, reinforcing the electronic foreground, but then a sequence of sporadic drum riffs takes control, causing the drones to shift with each carefully determined downbeat, ultimately rendering them spasmodic. It’s followed by ‘Oto’, which amounts to a full-on pitched battle, Davis’ wild clarinet improvisations riding over waves of digital bass until a strange shudder (or should that be shiver?) shakes off both elements resulting in ambiguity, vague electronic buzzes with a voice-like possible instrument in the wings. The trio finds considerable explorative scope in this simple dichotomy, but in ‘Rabid’ the friction is more elemental, a diptych formed from a massive slab of unknowable overpressure that is abruptly swept aside in favour of gentle post-rock meandering; each of these utterly different portions of material makes the other seem incomprehensible. Two pieces, ‘Brood’ and ‘Spacek’ ease off a bit, concerned more with focusing on a central idea and placing others around it, the former an ’80s-style bassline, the latter a Kreng-like shadowy drum loop. Closing track ‘Replicant’ is a hypnotic synthesis of all that went before, a loop drenched in fuzz that, depending on your perpsective, either slowly grows in size or simply becomes more and more encrusted with sonic detritus, a beautifully mournful lyrical solo from Davis twisting over the forward- and backward-looking beats and synths. We could call it ‘bleakwave’, a gorgeous demonstration of Shivers‘ primary theme, that when lyrical curves meet blunt lines, all sorts of sparks fly. The CD/vinyl is available direct from Miasmah, Boomkat has the download, and the whole album can be streamed below.