Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 2)

Record label Another Timbre has recently released the five discs that comprise the second part of its Canadian Composers Series, featuring music by Alex Jang, Cassandra Miller, Lance Austin Olsen and Linda Catlin Smith. While the excellent accompanying booklet to the series (which, at over 100 pages, is more a book than a booklet) elaborates on the many points of contact and connection between the composers, it would be misleading and inaccurate to say that the music on these five discs shares fundamental similarities. There’s no hint here of a kind of ‘Canadian Collective’ in the manner of the Wandelweiser posse; it’s impossible to miss the fact that all four composers take an overtly reflective approach, not only to their materials but to the way those materials are wielded, but that’s hardly unique to Canada and in any case the way each composer articulates that act of reflection is entirely individual.

For Linda Catlin Smith the approach is an intuitive one, and while i don’t think that’s in any way problematic (far from it), there’s no shaking the fact that several works on this disc – the second devoted to her work in this series – exhibit an overt ‘noodling’ sensibility. Take Music for John Cage, a quintessential, carbon-copy example of what has latterly come to be called ‘modern classical’ (perhaps the most inaccurate genre descriptor ever conceived): a mercifully short excursion through an arbitrary collection of harmonically similar triads in differing inversions that later become arpeggiated. Blah blah and indeed blah. Knotted Silk and Wanderer are similarly shrug-inducing examples of wan, washed-out plinky-plonk ideas – Wanderer benefiting slightly from its pervasively whoozy atmosphere – but the other works on the disc are more engagingly focused.

Light and Water for cello and percussion creates an intimate dialogue with a palpable sense of the players listening to each other, one going first, the other placing their ideas next to theirs, in a collaboration of sympathetic juxtapositions. This balance is made lopsided by the cello seeming aloof and indifferent in contrast to the apparent warmth of the percussion, a nice effect (and a counterintuitive one, since the cello is able to sustain indefinitely while the percussion instantly dies away) that only makes their interaction more interesting. Smith’s two-piano work Velvet features a comparably engrossing dialogue, the players occupied with a directly imitative approach, primarily chordal but interspersed with gentle asides and reflections. Most fascinating about the piece is its central ambiguity, whereby the generally restful nature of the music is nonetheless felt to have a restless, searching quality. At 15 minutes it’s the longest piece on the disc, but the performance by Mark Knoop and Philip Thomas makes the time pass seemingly in an instant, completely mesmerising from start to end. The highlight for me is Morning Glory, a 2007 ensemble work that begins with a simple diatonic idea being toyed with on piano. Expanded with a network of sustained pitches and then, following a restart, reconfigured as a sequence of quietly thundering chords, the music eventually polarises into low and high strands of melody; its glory is soft, but no less glorious for it, less about overwhelming than being simply radiant.

The four pieces on the disc exploring Alex Jang‘s music exhibit an even more lovely intimacy. That hardly seems the right word for a piece like momentary encounters (5), in which clarinettist Heather Roche performs in the open space of London’s Tooting Bec Common, yet the extensive ambient noises only makes the presence and proximity of the clarinet all the more apparent, a point of intense focus in an otherwise arbitrary world of noise. On top of this, there are interesting paradoxes at play: the calm, inward, subdued behaviour of the clarinet yet somehow expressing a kind of unspoken joy at being in the open air, plus the ostensibly casual – or, at least, relaxed – demeanour of the instrument in contrast to the regular, even meticulous delivery of its notes. Whether its 15-minute duration stretches the idea too thinly is debatable, but in any case it’s certainly a captivating piece that i’d love to experience en plein air sometime. Jang’s solo guitar piece a gray, bent interior horizon unfolds with similarly careful precision (though this time indoors), its plucked harmonics forming with varying clarity an imprecise melodic line. It’s intriguing how, over time, the instrument seems increasingly confident about the notes its playing, whereas the bigger picture created from these notes – which feels as if the rug is pulled from beneath it partway through – is anything but certain.

The question of duration is definitely an issue in Jang’s ensemble piece distributed tourism. Its main idea, of a note being sounded by someone and then being confirmed by the rest of the players, is delivered with exquisite fragility on this recording, at various points feeling as if harmony might spontaneously evolve from its series of pointillist melodic motes (which does happen a little due to reverberation). It’s the best kind of eggshell-walking music-making, yet the 25 minutes Jang allows for it takes its toll. The highlight for me is any three players – here taken by melodica, vibraphone and cello – where the music is less like a dialogue than three people wrangling with a problem that unites them. More paradoxes: on the one hand the material has a completely emotionless manner yet is sponge-like, able to absorb whatever emotions it invokes in the listener. For me, it was a complex amalgam of melancholy optimism, that evaporated the music’s superficial inscrutability and made it feel incredibly human. The intimacy here is so pronounced as to become almost hypnotic, with the concomitant sense of witnessing something very private playing out.

Just So, one of the two albums devoted to Cassandra Miller‘s music, focuses on works for string quartet, performed by the Bozzini Quartet, whose collaboration with Miller goes back many years. Her use of existing materials as the basis for her own is very apparent in the four pieces on this disc. Warblework takes four different birdsongs as its starting point, and it’s a huge relief that Miller goes in the completely opposite direction from Olivier Messiaen and pretty much every other composer to have utilised birdsong in their work. There’s no attempt to turn the quartet into a small-scale aviary, Miller instead producing scrungy melodic ideas laden with wavering and twiddling (NB. not twittering), coloured by undulating harmonics and, increasingly, croaks and scraped bowing. The first and last movements are by far the most interesting, the former (‘Swainson’s Thrush’) feeling like a single, multi-faceted idea going round and round in numerous permutations, the latter (‘Veery’) rendering the source material tenuous, making it slip-slide around, though ultimately this leads to the quartet becoming weirdly united. Fascinating.

Alongside appropriation of material it’s Miller’s use of repetition that stands out as a characteristic of how she works with material, and this is heard not just in Warblework but in most of the works on both her discs. Just So speaks as a morsel of folk-like material that’s been fragmented and then put back together in endless ways to form new cohesive melodic lines, given extra weight (and a harmonic root) towards its end, while About Bach channels the eponymous composer’s music into a circling collection of quasi-dance-like figurations as a stratospheric violin soars above. What, if anything, connects these elements is hard to say, though it hardly matters: despite having some of its power diminished due to an overlong duration (over 24 minutes), About Bach is nonetheless striking and beautiful. The piece i’ve returned to most on this disc is Leaving, which may well be the simplest of these four pieces but in many respects is the most impressive. This is ‘redolent’ music, constantly reminiscent of earlier material – shapes, gestures, phrases – with, again, a distinct folk-like quality. What’s so striking about the piece is the way it connects so directly and so affectingly to ideas of wistfulness and nostalgia without ever becoming cloying or sentimental. Each time i’ve listened to this piece i’ve found myself deeply moved by it, in ways that i can’t (but don’t really need to) understand.

The other disc of Cassandra Miller’s music explores both greatly expanded and reduced instrumental scales. At one end is the Duet for cello and orchestra, a work i wrote about a few years ago following its première at the 2015 Tectonics festival. Returning to the work has been an interesting experience, and while my overall reaction to the piece was the same, i was struck by the choice of the word ‘duet’ in the title. It’s a word that implies collaboration, perhaps even some kind of prearranged agreement, and while that seems fitting considering what the piece does, it’s interesting that the orchestra undergoes an almost complete behavioural transformation (evidently affected at a fundamental level by the cello’s material) while the soloist, a rather Zen-like figure in the midst of what is initially considerable mayhem, placidly carries on until all around has quietened. Far from having lost any impact, i’m inclined to say it’s even more mesmeric than when i first heard it three years ago. That’s not the case in Philip the Wanderer, a weird piece for piano and whistling that must surely be one of Miller’s most complex scores. A Finnissy-esque extended episode of low register wrangling, slowly creeping up the keyboard, yields to fragments of a twee descending line with a pounding chordal response, embellished later on with a whistled melody, and finally to a sequence of minimalistic floridity. One would be forgiven for hearing these as three separate sketches bolted together; for all their individual interest, as a whole Philip the Wanderer is one of Miller’s more frustrating compositions.

However, her 2007 ensemble piece O Zomer! demonstrates a much more successful and potent use of non-sequitur. Inspired by a text by Dutch poet Toon Tellegen, the piece is initially all about repetition: marimba chords in groups of 8 (or, later, 4) moving at different speeds and answered by single sustained pitches from cello and double bass. On and on, round and round, with elements dropping in and out and/or taking priority, until around four minutes in when the entire eight-piece ensemble erupts in a lengthy outburst of repetitive, tremulous, minimalistic jangling, the harmony of which gradually becomes smeared. Here, the jump cut doesn’t merely work but throws clarity in both directions: it gives context to the tentative, inverted overture that preceded it, which in turn is heard as the touchpaper for the blaze that ensues. The standout piece on this disc, though, is the smallest, For Mira for solo violin. Brilliantly performed here by its dedicatee, Mira Benjamin, the player works through their material according to varying placements of repeats, resulting in a captivating investigation cum scrutiny, as if the violinist were leaping around the score on a whim, putting each part of the music under the microscope. Different bowing techniques reinforce this, most strikingly towards the end when scratchy intonation combines with the repetitions to sound as if the violinist had become stuck in a groove, starting to wear out the instrument, the material and indeed themselves.

Of the five discs in this second part of Another Timbre’s Canadian Composers Series, the one that’s made the deepest impact and most lasting impression is the music by Lance Austin Olsen. Built upon graphic scores, there’s a provisionality to the music that’s demonstrated in two different realisations of Olsen’s Theseus’ Breath. Both versions are characterised by the same fundamental traits – principally the juxtaposition of sustained, often barely-speaking, pitches and granular noises – and while they’re (just about) identifiable as being the ‘same’ piece, there’s of course no guarantee that every and any realisation of ‘speculative’ music like this is going to be great. The second one here (for a combination of turntable, melodica, paper and card, reed organ, percussion and organetto) isn’t, rendering the piece as something wan and frustratingly bland and static; it’s almost as if the ensemble has become an exhausted über-instrument trying to speak, but the effort is far too nebulous to be interesting. The first realisation (for violin, electronics, percussion and cello, performed by members of Apartment House) is much more engaging, the merest whiffs of sound setting up a kind of ‘default’ state from which things start to emerge. It passes through some similar territory to the second realisation, but overall feels like a much more substantial piece, the music even attaining genuine power around halfway through, before opening out into a dronal space and finally atomising. Both realisations last ten minutes, and while the second seems very much longer, the first whips past, arresting one’s attention throughout.

The other two works, which each last around half an hour, are among the finest compositions i’ve heard in the entire Canadian Composers Series. In both of them Olsen brings field recordings and found objects together with acoustic and vocal sounds. Their long durations allow Olsen the patience for atmospheres to be established and consolidated, for the complexity of sounds to be unravelled, and for a fascinating sense of narrative to emerge. In A Meditation on the History of Painting (the only work you’re likely to encounter that includes an ‘amplified iron park bench’) it’s tempting to hear the piece as an attempt to avoid any kind of direct statement, as the opening minutes of the piece lurk somewhere in the middleground, faint metallic clinks and the noise of wind and/or water mingling at a distance as if entirely disconnected from any kind of active creative impulse. Only when this vanishes into silence does the activity become more obviously deliberate, forming a dronal environment etched by deep scratches and fragments of recorded dialogue and singing (from a wax cylinder). Sometimes the soundworld recedes to bare guitar pitches projecting like electronic tones into a seemingly infinite void, but the noise and scratch from earlier are the work’s defining feature. It culminates in a return to these elements within a more narrow kind of drone (as if sounding from within a tube) with more scratches panning from side to side and occasional pitches that sound like a far off foghorn.

Dark Heart is even more impressive; the interplays of pitch and noise, of sustained and granular sounds, and of live and prerecorded elements, are present here too and they attain something that defies categorisation, something completely magical. i don’t use that word lightly: it’s difficult if not impossible to articulate precisely how the discrete elements Olsen uses in the piece – similar to those in A Meditation on the History of Painting – combine and coalesce to create something that so completely transcends them all. “More than the sum of its parts” is a complete understatement: like the avant-garde sound design for a futuristic noir filmed in ultra-high definition monochrome, it somehow manages to be elusive and immersive at the same time, projecting a narrative that’s whatever you want it to be and which is utterly convincing. There are comparisons to be made between these two pieces and the work of (for example) Philippe Petit, Andrew Liles or Pat Maherr (Dark Heart, in particular, is at times strikingly similar to Maherr’s masterpiece Blemished Breasts), but Olsen’s individual way of working with and blending these elements is entirely unique, extraordinary and spellbinding.

These five discs are an intense and dramatic conclusion to Another Timbre’s Canadian Composers Series, which has gone a long way to shedding light on music that didn’t just deserve but badly needed attention. As i mentioned when reviewing the first part of the series early last year, while these albums don’t (and don’t try to) constitute a portrait of the entirety of Canadian contemporary compositional thinking, as a portrait of a very particular niche it’s undeniably and impressively comprehensive. All ten discs in the Canadian Composers Series are available directly from Another Timbre, with healthy discounts available when buying multiple discs.

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One Response to Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 2)

  1. Bob

    I agree whole-heartedly about Lance Austin Olsen. There is a remarkable imagination at work here, and your film analogy rings true, but I was thinking more in terms of horror rather than noir! I loved the powerful sense of doom in ‘Meditation…’, some only-just-human noises emerging from a droning and scraping backdrop.
    I do though disagree with one of your [slight] misgivings about Linda Caitlin Smith -I enjoy her ‘noodling’! What a great series, and the booklet is fascinating in terms of context – it’s clear that Canada has its own distinct non-European and non-USA voices, but with no overt school of thought or practice.

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