CD/Digital releases

Free internet music: Wixel

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Wim Maesschalk, better known as Wixel, is a Belgian musician who originally set up the label Slaapwel Records, the aim of which, as that name implies, is to provide “music to fall asleep to”. In a way that tells you all you need to know about Wixel, though his music is capable of a whole lot more than just sending one to sleep. His output isn’t large, and for the most part consists of his ‘2009 Project’, a series of 12 mini-albums he released a decade ago, each one on the last day of the month. Though these releases weren’t put out by Slaapwel their connection to sleep is extremely strong, and indeed one of the things i find most fascinating about them is that they don’t merely sound designed to accompany that unique kind of somnolent whooziness, but in many cases sound as if they were actually created in that very state. What this means is that the music has a tendency to veer quite sharply between grabbing one’s attention and seeming completely disinterested in doing anything more than just lethargic rambling. Such a division as that sounds pretty close to Brian Eno’s ‘interesting/ignorable’ dichotomy, and indeed Maesschalk wrote the following in his introduction to the fourth album in the series, Slaapliedjes [Lullabies], with regard to the practice (and difficulties) of utilising processes to aid creativity:

Trying to make good music every day of the week can be quite frustrating. Especially because you know it is impossible to make 12 records full with excellent melodies and sounds. … Suddenly I had the idea to forget about melodies, about rhythm, about shaping sounds. The only thing that would determine these songs is the density of notes and the choice of the instruments. … The consequence is that all [the] songs are very different, yet they sound very alike. … They all look very very similar, but they’re all quite unique. … All [the] songs are also part of my idea about “slaapwel records” music. They shouldn’t carry too many stories, but should reside on the thin line between pretty and boring.

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Free internet music: Zbigniew Karkowski

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One of my absolute favourites at the most extreme end of pretty much all musical continua is Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski. Karkowski died just over five years ago, and digesting his legacy is something i’ve been attempting to do since his passing. While there are plenty of available recordings of his work, concert performances in the UK are exceedingly rare. Graham McKenzie prominently featured his work at HCMF in 2015 and 2017, and both occasions served as a marvellous demonstration of the unique combination of intricate subtlety and enormous overload that typify Karkowski’s music. Performances of Karkowski easily rank among the most beautiful and overwhelming musical experiences i’ve ever had, and one can only hope that similarly open-minded concert curators might programme his work more often in future.

Live in Lyon is an unedited 23-minute recording of one of Karkowski’s performances. The fact that it’s unedited is significant, as it highlights from time to time the way in which Karkowski wrangled with both the technology and the sound materials themselves, and the occasional dropouts and glitches that occur in no way sound like ‘mistakes’ but only add to the overall effect of the performance. Discussing Karkowski’s music to an extent necessitates looking broadly rather than at minutiae. It tends to unfold slowly, generally favouring evolution and transformation rather than abrupt cuts and shifts, and an important factor in engaging with it is the way one gradually becomes familiar with its discrete sound elements, a familiarity that Karkowski often makes crushingly intimate. Read more

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Free internet music: The Missing Ensemble

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The Missing Ensemble was a US trio comprising Daniel De Los Santos, John Sellekaers and Mathias Delplanque, who together released two albums around 13 years ago. i forget where the recommendation to listen to their music came from all those years ago, but i do remember that one of the things that instantly drew me towards it was the cover art of their first album, Hidden Doors (2006), which featured a painting by an artist i had long admired, Ray Caesar.

Caesar’s art is beautiful and unsettling, and that’s not a bad description for Hidden Doors, a four-part journey through a soundscape that’s simultaneously stable – even, at times, borderline stagnant – yet with an omnipresent sense of threat. The first part sets up two layers of sound, one of which is positioned in the middleground, and consists of quiet, slightly glitchy burbling. The second layer involves various pitches being emphatically extruded in the foreground, sometimes piercing or juddering, other times acting in a more circumspect manner, lurking nearby. The relative strength of these two layers continually varies and wavers though extremely slowly, gently altering the depth and focus of the music. In the second and third parts there’s more of a sense of diverse elements being brought together. In the relatively brief Part II, there’s a sense of metamorphosis, of these elements combining to form something new. In less than three minutes it becomes a beautiful but strange, multi-faceted texture in which pitch and noise collide and jostle, as if it were reforming and breaking apart constantly. Read more

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Free internet music: Access to Arasaka

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Apologies for the silence on 5:4 for the last couple of weeks, but i’ve been completely wiped out by ‘flu during this time, and have only started to feel relatively human again in the last day or so. Very belated then, i’m going to spend the remainder of January in the same way as i did in 2018, starting the new year by showing deference to the financial repercussions of the festive season, and teasing out some of the more interesting music that’s available online for no money whatsoever.

i’m going to begin with US musician Rob Lioy, who releases his music under a name derived from one of the megacorporations in role-playing game Cyberpunk 2020Access To Arasaka. It’s possible to speak quite broadly about the Access to Arasaka back catalogue due to the fact that Lioy’s musical approach has remained pretty consistent. It’s primary characteristic is a dichotomy between motion and stillness, the former articulated via energetic, often heavily-glitched beats placed emphatically in the foreground, the latter as layers of pitch and harmony that drift in the middle- and background as well as, crucially, bass drones that despite often being implied more than heard, nonetheless tend to feel omnipresent. It’s an archetypal ambient/electronica amalgam, but there are numerous ways that Lioy’s work stands apart from the large amount of music that explores this kind of conjunction.

It’s partly down to the music’s sheen: every Access to Arasaka track has the same kind of futuristic noir atmosphere that permeates Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. As such, the music displays an array of opposites. Its ultra-modernity is matched by a gritty, even dirty demeanour; the beats in particular are often encrusted with digital grime and squelch such that they sound not so much new as a resurrected manifestation of something potentially much older. The liveliness of these beat patterns – which, when present, are almost always front and centre – is countered by the way Lioy grounds each track over a drone, resulting in music that inhabits a sharply defined and perhaps delimited environment, within which it remains somewhat tethered in place. One of the most beguiling opposites that characterises Access to Arasaka is the fanciful sense that, far from being actively composed, these might almost be compositions created by the computers themselves, as if banks of ancient data had begun burbling into life and sought to arrange their contents according to some kind of artificial intelligence. This arises in part from the austerity of Lioy’s aesthetic, which treats its elements of beats and bass with such aloof, monochrome intensity that it becomes almost fetishistic. Another way of putting it might be to say that Access to Arasaka is cold and unemotional, yet of course the way one responds to such music may well be the complete opposite. Read more

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Moritz Eggert – Musica Viva Vol. 30

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It’s often not easy to put into words how or why a piece works, and in the case of Moritz Eggert, i’m literally starting this article not at all sure what on earth i’m going to say. The latest Musica Viva disc on the NEOS label – Vol. 30, which testifies to NEOS’ incredible ongoing commitment to avant-garde music – is dedicated to two of Eggert’s works, performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Masse, the seventh in his ‘Number Nine’ series, and Muzak, a piece for voice and orchestra dedicated to the late David Bowie. Having written recently about one contemporary response to muzak, it’s interesting to encounter another one, although straight away there are some issues with that title and its implied accompanying conceit.

It’s not actually about muzak. Not even remotely. As a musical entity, muzak isn’t bound within the limits of one particular genre. Instead, its primary characteristic is to be an especially light, anodyne and inconspicuous version of whatever stylistic manner is desired, usually some form of pop, rock or jazz. The distinction between the original musical form – the ‘parent’ – and the muzak rendition of it – the ‘child’ or, better still, the ‘bastard’ – is an essential one: the former seeks active attention, the latter requires passive (even subliminal) acknowledgement. The main problem with Eggert’s Muzak is that this distinction is essentially lost. The piece, conducted here by David Robertson, is constructed as a collage of generic tropes that process past as if on a conveyor belt, snippets and fragments that allude to various kinds of what Eggert summarises as “commercial music”. Perhaps inevitably, jump-cut juxtapositions between sharply dissimilar idioms is amusing, and this is evidently no accident. The reality that the piece has a deliberately comic sensibility is reinforced in part by the often hilarious delivery with which Eggert himself performs the role of the solo voice, singing, crooning and otherwise articulating a stream of allusions to the “clichés or platitudes of pop music” (the composer’s words). One especially funny section takes an extended pot-shot at the arch-nemesis of good taste André Rieu, references to his name causing Eggert’s voice to become quietly apoplectic, letting out a collection of barely-repressed f-bombs. Read more

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Kenneth Hesketh – In Ictu Oculi

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One of the things i’ve noted previously when writing about the larger-scale music of Kenneth Hesketh – which in general i’ve admired very much – is its tendency toward what i’ve called “laser-sighted focus”. This peculiar kind of über-clarity is exhibited in many of Hesketh’s works from the noughties, and from my perspective has proved problematic, not only becoming rather tiring, but actively working against what seemed to me to be the composer’s more fundamental (and engaging) instincts for more unconventional, nebulous forms of drama and narrative. So it’s interesting to be able to compare then and now with a new disc of more recent orchestral works released last month on Paladino Music. The three featured works, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Christoph-Mathias Mueller, were all composed during the last few years, and right at the outset it’s abundantly clear that much has changed, about which more in a moment.

If there’s a weakness shown here, it’s only to be found in Of Time and Disillusionment, where one encounters (in the first and fourth movements) vestiges of the kind of crystal-clear, spiky, spritely material so beloved by mainstream British composers, energetic Faberian froth that invariably sounds hackneyed and empty. However, and this is also something i’ve mentioned before, both the nature and the treatment of such material in Hesketh’s music has always managed to save it from ever sounding commonplace or generic, and the same is true here. The fourth movement, in particular, keeps veering away from mundane frivolity into weird asides, where we find burbling bassoons together with a soft glockenspiel (hard to tell if they’re in a dialogue or just blatantly ignoring one other) or a lovely kind of snappy swagger, where the orchestra sounds like they’ve drunk rather too much and are now trying to pick a fight. Far more telling, though – even more than the delicious traces of (French-inspired) opulence that are a definite Hesketh fingerprint – are the surprising levels of violence that rear up from time to time, yanking the structure around with such force that, if it wasn’t for the music’s traces of playfulness and retreats into delicacy, one might start to feel intimidated. Read more

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Jörg Widmann – Drittes Labyrinth/Polyphone Schatten

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Wergo has recently released a new disc featuring two works by Jörg Widmann, performed by the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heinz Holliger and Emilio Pomàrico. Polyphone Schatten (‘polyphonic shadows’) dates from 2001 and features a clarinet and viola as soloists, played by Widmann himself and Christophe Desjardins. Despite the levels of activity displayed in the piece, it makes more sense to talk about restraint, as one of the most striking aspects of Polyphone Schatten is the way Widmann matches the rapidity that typifies much of his material with incredibly soft dynamics and articulations. That’s not exactly the work’s default position, but it’s a sort of ‘comfort zone’ to which the music regularly returns, often to the point of near-inaudibility due to being either extremely staccato or moving with quicksilver velocity. In terms of relationships, the soloists are clearly in cahoots with each other, while the orchestra seems to behave by way of response to their activities, often in a supporting or imitative role but occasionally growing a pair and asserting itself in wonderfully wild fashion. For the most part, Widmann avoids conventional dramatic highs and lows, favouring quantities of detail rather than sheer weight and mass, though two climactic passages later on are remarkable in respect of how unexpectedly they emerge and how enormous they sound in contrast to what’s gone before. Read more

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