CD/Digital releases

Zbigniew Karkowski – Encumbrance

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In recent years, one of the most vividly memorable Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals was 2017, when the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski was prominently featured. Huddersfield is in fact the only place in the UK that i’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Karkowski’s music performed live, which suggests everywhere else is either too ignorant or – more likely – too timid to consider programming it. Karkowski’s music is not necessarily intimidating, though his radical, implacable embracing of extremes perhaps makes his music more likely than most to send certain portions of the audience scrambling for the exit.

One of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski for choir and electronics. The piece seriously bowled me over, so i was excited to learn that a CD of Encumbrance has recently been issued on the Polish label Bôłt. Better still, the disc includes two performances of the work, which may seem peculiar but turns out to be extremely revealing about which aspects of the music are fixed and which are variable. The performances, which date from 2014 and 2016, are again given by the Gęba Vocal Ensemble, with the electronics realised by Wolfram in the earlier recording and Constantin Popp in the latter. Read more

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Esa-Pekka Salonen – Cello Concerto

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One of my highlights from last year came at the end of the summer, during the final concert at the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm. An occasion given over to celebrating composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (which i reviewed elsewhere), the concert included a performance of Salonen’s Cello Concerto given by soloist Truls Mørk and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by – who else? – the composer himself. Originally premièred in early 2017, i didn’t know the piece beforehand but came away enormously impressed at its language and attitude. So, while it’s often true that new works can take an irritatingly long time before becoming available, it’s great to see an EP featuring this piece has been released, performed by the work’s dedicatee, Yo-Yo Ma, with Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Having the opportunity to spending time with the piece again, at length, has clarified things enormously. The first and most important thing to say is that it’s just as deeply impressive on repeat listening as it was on first contact in the Berwaldhallen last September. Salonen writes in the accompanying notes about not being bothered about tradition, and that “a concerto does not suggest a formal design the same way a symphony does”. At first glance, that seems an odd assertion to make considering his own concerto is structured in three movements that broadly conform to the convention of fast-slow-fast. Yet that’s about as conventional as the work gets, and it’s more accurate to characterise the content of those movements as the product of improvisatory whim and élan. As such, structure comes across more like an ’emergent property’ than a clear, prefabricated design underlying things, and even that fast-slow-fast description, when immersed within the piece, seems to be of secondary importance at best. Read more

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Juhani Silvola – Post-biological wildlife

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We might call it “conjectural anthropology”. What i’m referring to here is music (or any art, for that matter) that seeks to fabricate and/or otherwise be inspired by fictitious notions of organic life and activity. We find examples of this in, among other places, the strange electronic languages being uttered in the two volumes of Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of Notional Species, in the wildly theatrical simulated-ethnographic rituals and dances of Paul Dolden’s Histoires d’histoire, and in the dual attempt to question and (re)invent an ancient magic in Gabriel Dharmoo’s Futile Spells. While none of these works seeks to effect real plausibility – focusing instead on the inherent joy arising from playing fast and loose with conceits of pseudo-reality – it’s surprising how effective and authentic they can feel, and as a consequence, how much we want them to be real. Similar feelings arise when listening to Post-biological wildlife, the latest album from Norwegian composer Juhani Silvola.

Rather than conceptualising a long-distant past, Silvola’s outlook is staunchly forward, looking ahead to a futuristic vision that may or may not involve people. Or, at least, ‘people’ as we currently understand the term: the “post-biology” at play here is evidently a convoluted amalgam of human, animal and machine elements. Opening track ‘Ritualrytmikk’ (itself a lexicological amalgam) brings together an assortment of percussive taps and beats amidst electronic blips and bleeps such that the distinction between them, though always evident, seems irrelevant. Occasionally surrounded by deep gongs and high chimes, the ritual aspect of the music is articulated with ice-cold simplicity and clarity, forming a nice counterpoint to the capricious irregularity of its rhythmic patterns. More relaxed but connected in parallel, ’20th Century Meditation’ turns metric regularity into a steady state textural foundation over which gentle plinky-plonky melodic fragments meander. As such, it evokes the progenitors of ambient music (hinted at in both parts of its title, “20th Century” and “Meditation”) while sounding unequivocally new. The title track is equally committed to just a single idea, setting up a habitat within which ersatz bird- and insect-sounds proliferate, joined later by gusts generated by an artificial storm. Read more

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Clemens von Reusner – Electroacoustic Works

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In contemporary electronic music it can be hard to find a good balance between a robust sense of purpose while retaining the possibility of spontaneity. To an extent, the sculpted nature of fixed media works tacitly tends to enforce the former over the latter such that, like the dialogue in most movies, everything we hear is not merely interesting or relevant in the moment but necessary to the larger-scale direction of the work’s inner narrative. With that in mind, it’s been good to spend time with an anthology of electronic music by German composer Clemens von Reusner, where precisely this kind of balance between order and whim is demonstrated.

Aside from the fact they were all composed within the last decade, if the seven works on the disc have something fundamental in common it’s to be found in Reusner’s general attitude with regard to the handling of his materials. The title of one of the pieces, Sphären der Untätigkeit (‘Spheres of Inactivity’), might do well as a description of this attitude. At pretty much no point is there a sense that Reusner is pushing things on or overtly marshalling them toward a certain end or outcome. Instead, sounds – both on their own and as part of larger textures – are given time to establish themselves, allowing us to get to know them, before they change and/or develop into something new. What that means is that the impression of structure in these pieces is just that, an impression, one that ostensibly arises more from the inclination and interaction of each work’s elements than from an underlying scheme within which they are designed to conform and fit. Read more

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Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann – LP1

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It was perhaps inadvertently helpful that i first listened to LP1, a new release from Joseph Branciforte and Theo Bleckmann, in bed late at night. Not because it’s nocturnal, as such, but more to do with the fact that it sounded in sympathy with the pitch blackness all around me. For while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that LP1 is an album without colours, still less that it’s a ‘black’ music, there’s nonetheless an inscrutability to its palette that i find fascinating every time i listen to it. Its soundworld is something of an amalgam of the cycling, mechanical, glitchy plinky-clunk of Michael Cutting and the overlapping, quasi-isorhythmic patterns of Brian Eno’s earliest ambient music. If that suggests a paradox, the one tightly-controlled and hands-on, the other loosely-arranged and hands-off, then that’s exactly what permeates all four tracks of LP1, a sensibility in which improvisational freedom and compositional planning are evidently both being brought to bear on the music at the same time.

There’s a dronal aspect to this, which fuels the sense of music always moving while never moving far from its starting point. In opening track ‘6.15’ it’s founded upon enormous deep bass pulses that form the bedrock for a network of soft glitches, breathy vocalise and an assortment of pitches that emerge and recede at random. The bass is so profoundly low that it practically transcends the notion of drone, instead becoming a kind of architectonic rumble, like the low resonance given off by a far-distant energy source. Its omnipresence is curiously elusive; trying to focus on it somehow renders it less perceptible. Nonetheless, its consistency enables a dual state that on one level feels meditative – its higher-level sounds gently impinging against each other, occasionally accompanied by wordless singing – while being simultaneously insistent, demanding attention. As such, it’s not remotely background or atmospheric music, but an altogether more active form of immersion. Third track ‘4.19’ acts in a similar way, delicate Fender Rhodes notes calmly rotating and coalescing around a fixed central point, like a sonic mobile. There are hints of Eno’s Music For Airports here, but its texture is much more complex, and again, doesn’t in any way encourage disinterest in the listener. Read more

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Kyle Bobby Dunn – From Here to Eternity

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Ambient music has been on my mind a lot lately. Monty Adkins and i are nearing completion on our forthcoming book about Ambient that we’re co-editing – following on from the conference we organised last year – and i completed my own lengthy contribution to this just last week. Since i was a teenager, Ambient is a genre, form, idiom, subject, concept, aesthetic and philosophy that’s been close to my heart, yet one with which for many, many years now i’ve grown increasingly frustrated and disenchanted. i’m not going to get into that here, except to say that simplistic throwings-together of superficially pretty chords, fragile plinky plonky pianos and vacant, arbitrary field recordings do not magically conjure up successful Ambient. Far from it, and it’s become increasingly difficult to find anything that doesn’t adhere to such manifestations of what should more properly be termed ‘blandbient’ or ‘wanbient’, the very epitome of what Vangelis once summarised as music providing “the opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music”.

One of the few Ambient artists to have consistently held my attention is Canadian composer Kyle Bobby Dunn. i first encountered his work almost ten years ago, with his splendid double album A Young Person’s Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn, which has proved itself to be one of the best Ambient works of the last decade. One of the things that sets Dunn apart from the plethora of Ambient wannabes is his restraint; lesser artists indiscriminately churn out the stuff like they’ve taken a massive dose of creative laxative, while Dunn has contented himself with ten albums and a similar number of EPs over the last two decades. Read more

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Cat Temper – Henry (an electronic soundtrack to Eraserhead)

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The word ‘sacrilege’ doesn’t hold a lot of meaning for me, yet it was this very word that popped into my mind when i was contacted a couple of months ago by Boston musician Mike Langlie, a.k.a. Cat Temper, to let me know of his latest project Henry, being a new soundtrack for David Lynch’s 1977 debut movie Eraserhead. Longer-term readers of 5:4 will know that when i’m not composing, critiquing or listening to music, i’m usually to be found watching movies. Cinema is a life-long passion of mine, and David Lynch was one of the very first directors whose work i fell in love with during my early, highly impressionable teenage years. Eraserhead was, and remains, an astonishing achievement – a complex, immersive, disorienting dive into a surreal world that may or may not be part of our own, or indeed happening all or in part within the fevered imagination of its protagonist Henry Spencer. Furthermore, as with all of Lynch’s projects, the music and sound design – becoming one and the same thing, impossible to separate – are an integral component in Eraserhead‘s cinematic language. Put simply: you don’t fuck around with it; to do so would surely be sacrilege.

Yet, sitting down to watch Eraserhead a couple of weeks ago – sound muted, now synchronised with Cat Temper’s new score – i can happily admit to having goosebumps from the outset. This was a double-bill, in fact: i watched the film in its original form first, in order to re-imprint its sound-image relationship and thereby be better placed to appreciate the effect of Temper’s music. The first thing to say is that Henry never overtly seeks to emulate the film’s original soundworld: in place of Lynch’s industrial mise en scène we are presented with an intense, brooding, synth-laden score filled with restless riffs and pulsating rhythms – David Lynch as if reconfigured by Nicolas Winding Refn. Quite apart from its potential effectiveness, opting to take such an entirely different, even opposite musical approach as this has got to be applauded: whatever else it may be, it’s bold, it’s brave and it’s ballsy. Read more

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