CD/Digital releases

Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir – Vernacular; Siggi String Quartet – South of the Circle; Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Concurrence

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In just over a week’s time Iceland’s premier new music festival, the Dark Music Days, will be up and running again, and once again i’ll be heading off to Reykjavík to immerse myself in some of the goings-on. Details about the festival can be found here, and for any UK dwellers who fancy a spontaneous jaunt over to Iceland, there are some fantastically cheap deals to be had from Gatwick and Bristol (especially, with Bristol, if you travel on a Wednesday or Sunday), and some equally great deals to be found on AirBnB. As an upbeat to the festival, it’s a good time to touch on a number of releases that came out last year on the Sono Luminus label, showcasing some of the more exciting examples of Icelandic contemporary music-making. Read more

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London Choral Sinfonia – O Holy Night

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, CD/Digital releases, Thematic series | Leave a comment

The solstice and the season of winter are fast approaching, so over the next week as we transition through i’m going to explore music that taps into some of the aspects of this remarkable time of year. By that i don’t just mean ‘Christmas music’ – which, let’s face it, is rarely something to get excited about these days – but also works that speak of cold, darkness and the ever more encroaching presence of the night.

To start, though, i am turning to music celebrating Christmas, in order to flag up a new disc called O Holy Night performed by London Choral Sinfonia. From the perspective of contemporary music, Christmas is seriously troublesome in the way it so often leads composers down over-trodden paths towards tradition, banality and cliché. It’s refreshing, then, to find a sprinkling of contemporary pieces on this disc that offer a little more than that. To be clear, O Holy Night doesn’t just feature contemporary music – the album is clearly designed to emulate a conventional Anglican carol service, including a number of exceedingly well-worn hymns and carols that act as structural points of familiarity and repose in between some of the more adventurous music. There’s not a great deal to say about these except that the choir, conducted by Michael Waldron, gives them all the most lusty treatment, at times singing with such overblown heartiness you can’t help wondering if copious quaffings of mulled wine took place before rather than after the performance. Read more

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Roland Kayn – Scanning

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There aren’t many new releases that require you to free up huge chunks of time in your schedule, but then Roland Kayn isn’t like many composers. Two years ago, 14 hours were required to explore the vast expanse of his A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, which i ended up doing in a couple of 8-hour shifts across two days. The latest release of Kayn’s music, Scanning, lasts a mere 10 hours that, in contrast, seemed to pass with surprising briskness.

This wasn’t due simply to it being significantly shorter than its predecessor; i think it’s primarily to do with the nature of the music – particularly the kinds of materials Kayn uses and, most importantly, the way that they’re shaped, articulated and structured. It’s feasible to think of many of the 24 movements of Scanning as examples of what i’ve previously called ‘meta-ambient’, where a generalised steady state reigns over the long-term behaviour of the music, leading to in essence an equilibrium, within which a constant evolution takes place, sometimes involving abrupt shifts or alterations in its details. Long-form structural designs are of course nothing new in Kayn’s music, yet the specific way Scanning behaves sets it apart, i think, not only from A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, but from a great deal of his previously-released output. When writing about A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound a couple of years ago, i commented on its generative, hands-off aspect, and on that occasion cited Autechre as a point of reference. Scanning also possesses this hands-off aspect, but a more fitting aesthetic reference this time might be the music of Andrew McKenzie’s The Hafler Trio project, particularly (but not exclusively) his last major releases from around 2003–2005. This is down to the way that pretty much every part of Scanning plays with and explores the relationship between pitch and noise. In some respects – and this is perhaps the only strong connection to A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound – its 24 movements are almost variations on this theme. Read more

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Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden III

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It all began with a trilogy. This was back in 2005 when, over the course of three successive years, Irish musical entity Fovea Hex (singer Clodagh Simonds, together with a changing roster of collaborators) put out the trio of EPs – Bloom, Huge and Allure – that would become collectively known as Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. An album in all but name, each part of the trilogy was accompanied by an additional disc where the music had been extensively remixed by The Hafler Trio. Following this there was a four-year wait until their only actual album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, was released in 2011, again with an accompanying disc of remixes (titled Three Beams) by Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski. After which a further five years would pass before their most recent, even more slow-to-emerge trilogy The Salt Garden, the third and final part of which has recently – finally! – been released.

It’s worth taking a moment just to reflect on two significant aspects of all this. First is the group’s disinterest (for the most part) in more conventional contemporary release practices. i described Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent as an album in all but name, yet at a risk of contradicting myself the fact is that it wasn’t, and isn’t, an album, but – to borrow a phrase from The Hafler Trio – a ‘trilogy in three parts’. There’s something rather old-school about it, not unlike like the practice during the 1990s in which, due to the popularity of the relatively new CD medium, instead of releasing bog standard singles, artists would instead put out dual maxi-singles, one disc of which typically featured three or four songs, the other disc a collection of remixes. Taken together, the two discs would often last as long (if not longer) than an album, and being able to spend time with a cluster of songs that were then reworked was always an enormously enjoyable listening experience. Read more

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Charles Uzor – mimicri/ pieces with tape

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Another interesting release from the NEOS label is mimicri/ pieces with tape, a double album featuring nine works by Nigerian-born composer Charles Uzor. As the name suggests, most of the music is electroacoustic, together with a chamber piece and two works for choir, and the majority of them are relatively recent, dating from within the last five years. Uzor was an entirely new name to me, and while this album is helpful as a portrait of the composer’s outlook and aesthetic, if anything that portrait is an intriguingly multifaceted one, in which connections between the different works are far from obvious. Perhaps it would be fair to characterise Uzor’s music as ‘consistently inconsistent’.

The opening work on the album is 2016’s Nri/ mimicri, in which an ondes martenot and percussion quartet coexist – or, rather, co-behave – in a way that could be described as ‘meta-ambient‘. It’s an unhurried atmosphere combining small individual attacks from the percussion with more extended sounds from the ondes (both sustained pitches and glissandi), within a kind of ‘open’ ambiance articulated by gentle granular noise on the tape. The piece coalesces into more focused episodes where there’s an overt sense of dialogue, yet as the work’s half-hour duration progresses the broader context suggests that these kinds of action – and others, such as prominent passages from vibraphone and marimba – are all elements that can be essentially switched on and off. It leads to a beautiful form of steady state where small-scale interest is always balanced against large-scale equilibrium, though it’s important to stress the small-scale interest is not merely striking but at times surprising, such as the introduction of previously unheard birdsong into the texture just a few minutes before the end. Read more

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Gunnar Geisse – The Wannsee Recordings

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The Wannsee Recordings is a double album by German composer and improviser Gunnar Geisse, released on the NEOS label earlier this year. In some ways, that sentence is about as certain as i can be about the album because, to be honest, i was as impressed by it as i was flummoxed by it. Usually, when an album ramps up its flummox factor it doesn’t take too long for it to become unengaging and ultimately boring, but in the case of The Wannsee Recordings, despite the fact that i regularly found myself staring at the speakers in a certain amount of disbelief, something about it kept me hooked for its complete 150-minute duration.

Let’s back up a bit: the album is essentially an anthology of 34 individual improvisations, ranging in length from 58 seconds to well over 13 minutes, performed by Geisse using a special laptop guitar rigged up to a MIDI controller and a laptop enabling the instrument to transform into a host of other instruments and sounds. Sometimes the guitar stays fairly close to its own identity, but in most cases it would be impossible to tell that what you’re hearing is emanating from a guitar. Opening track ‘VII.4 [10100111_A7_⋆167]’, for example, is described as being for “electric guitar, brass, percussion, timpani and celesta’, whereas one of the most ambitious, ‘II.4+V.4 [100100+1100111_24+67_⋆36+⋆103]’ comprises “electric guitar, saxophone, drum set, woodwinds, strings, piano, choir, noises and trombone”. It’s not stretching a point to describe these improvisations as encompassing orchestral forces and scope. Read more

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Jakob Ullmann – Fremde Zeit Addendum 5; Stefan Fraunberger – Quellgeister #3 Bussd

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i’ve been spending time lately with new releases from two composers towards whose work i’ve hitherto felt almost universally positive. There’s something a little nerve-racking about this, inducing anxiety – and, to an extent, incredulity – that the unfamiliar new will be able to live up to the marvellous old. That’s especially true in the case of Jakob Ullmann, for while i’ve been fascinated and engrossed in all of the discs of his music steadily put out by the ever-dependable Edition RZ label – in addition to occasional (but too few) performances of his work – i’ve nonetheless always found myself wondering what’s left to explore in Ullmann’s edge-of-audibility soundworld.

The latest disc of his music, Fremde Zeit Addendum 5, reveals that there’s actually quite a lot – though its nature is rather surprising. The album features a single hour-long work of Ullmann’s, Solo V for piano, though describing it as “for piano” doesn’t even begin to hint at the reality of what this piece does, or is. As with the other solo works released by Edition RZ, the piano is situated in a vast space, becoming a microscopic presence within a seemingly infinite macroscopic universe. This bears strong similarities to the way the bassoon is perceived in Müntzers stern (one of my best albums of last year), though there’s much less sense here of the solo instrument causing the environment to resonate. Read more

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Four aspects of Erkki-Sven Tüür: Spectrums

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Birthdays and anniversaries provide an excellent opportunity to stop and look back, and contemplate everything that’s happened along the path of time that leads to here and now. This week – on Wednesday, in fact – marked the 60th birthday of Estonia’s most unconventional and irrepressible composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür. i’ve been listening to the most recent CD of his music, Spectrums, and considering how this impressive cycle encapsulates different aspects of his musical personality. In some ways, the four parts of Spectrums, each of which involves the organ, are like snapshots – selfies, perhaps – of Tüür at different stages of his musical life. Together, they present a fascinating portrait of an ever-changing yet always consistent composer. Read more

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Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra – Orchestral Works

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i’ve written a lot about Estonian music on 5:4 in the last few years, but i’m conscious that i’ve given relatively little attention to the other two Baltic states. That’s more to do with a lack of opportunities than a lack of enthusiasm, but while i’m still relatively clueless about contemporary music from Latvia, i wanted to flag up an interesting disc of orchestral works that i received from some very nice people in Lithuania. Recorded by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Adrija Čepaitė, the disc features pieces by a trio of senior figures in Lithuanian music. Read more

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relief – The Gloaming

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An album that i’ve been returning to again and again in recent months is The Gloaming, the debut release from relief, nom de guerre of composer Chris Berkes. As debuts go – a 42-minute work cast in four broad movements – it’s certainly impressive. A title like The Gloaming, with its connotations of fading crepuscular light and evening weariness, possibly suggests a music inclined towards shadow, its details vague, half-lost in encroaching darkness; the fact that the second part is titled ‘Tenebrae’ only reinforces such an assumption. Yet, interestingly, The Gloaming turns out to be nothing like that at all.

Taken as a whole, the piece is caught between veracity and artifice, in which field recordings make their presence felt in the midst of heavily processed and sculpted sounds. As such, it makes sense to think of The Gloaming as an acousmatic work, setting out to immerse the listener in a vivid metareality, the parameters and landscapes of which are continually shifting and reforming. That being said, one of the great strengths of the work is the relative limitation of its range of materials, which helps to give a greater sense of definition to its soundworld. It’s both earthy – the third part is even titled ‘Vom Grund’ (from the ground) – and airborne, the product of impacted industrial dirt and floating effervescence, manifesting in close juxtapositions of sharply contrasting materials: the clarity of pitch and clouds of noise; hard accented attacks and soft-edged sustained tones; sounds that are immovable and immaterial. Read more

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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 a CD of 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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The Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time – Stage 6

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i’m all too aware of the profound irony in what i’m about to write. The final stage in Leyland Kirby’s epic six-part cycle exploring dementia, Everywhere at the end of time, has literally – this very minute – just been released. Whether it will bring to a close not just that individual cycle but also Kirby’s 20-year project under the moniker The Caretaker remains to be seen, but either way, significant endings inevitably invite the desire for some sort of retrospective. Like the biblical tale of Lot’s wife’s fatal backward glance at the city she’d been instructed to leave (Genesis 19), Dante the Pilgrim’s looking back at earth through the celestial spheres before his final ascent into paradise (The Divine Comedy: Paradiso, Canto XXII), or Truman Burbank’s last survey of his fictional world before departing it forever (The Truman Show), there’s an impulse in, i suspect, all of us to take stock and appraise the full scale of something as it reaches its culmination. Except of course, in the case of Everywhere at the end of time, it’s ironic to do this since the essence of its entire trajectory runs counter to the very possibility of being able to look back, as memory and awareness become ever more dulled, deadened and destroyed. So for the last few weeks, as i’ve been contemplating Stage 6 and how we got here through the preceding five stages, and indeed Kirby’s entire oeuvre as The Caretaker, i could hardly be more conscious of how privileged, fortunate and grateful i am to be able to do just that. Read more

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Quatuor Bozzini – Phill Niblock: Baobab

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One of the more memorable events at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was the late night concert at Bates Mill given by Quatuor Bozzini, featuring music by Éliane Radigue and Phill Niblock. A few weeks ago, the Bozzinis released an album featuring two works by Niblock, including the one they played in Huddersfield, Disseminate as Five String Quartets. i have to admit that i was sceptical about the extent to which the experience could be adequately captured in a recording. Niblock’s endless waves of juddering pitch had made Bates Mill seem not simply filled but saturated, one minute feeling as though we were submerged in water, the next suffused with dazzling light. Either way, it was a veritable flood.

This recording goes a long way to living up to that mesmeric live encounter. Both works, in fact, inhabit this same soundworld, both starting life as orchestral pieces that Niblock reworked for a live string quartet plus four additional prerecorded quartets. Disseminate as Five String Quartets sets out with only the implication of stability, harmonically complex from the outset with something that may or may not be dronal at its core. This develops into a conflict where apparent stasis (the piece, after all, is built upon slow moving, drawn-out pitches) is continually undermined by strange undulations and shifts in its tonal makeup. Often, one becomes aware of something only after it’s actually been present for some time, and it’s similarly difficult to track the evolution of the work’s harmony, which from around halfway through has become seriously smeared, still dronal but tonally clusterfucked. Read more

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John Wall & Alex Rodgers – Soar

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Oh mate give this shit a rest
Why should you be allowed to think your dream means anything?

These words of poet Alex Rodgers come towards the end of ‘County Moods (part 1)’, the opening piece on Soar, his latest collaboration with musician John Wall. The question these words pose mirrors part of my own thinking while listening to the album. Interestingly, though, not because of anything specific that i was hearing.

Released by Entr’acte a few weeks back, it’s the first time that one of the duo’s albums has been issued with Rodgers’ texts included, here compiled in an accompanying book. This is interesting in and of itself, but it also serves as something of a challenge to several aspects of how i’d perceived their previous output. Alex Rodgers is one of the most enigmatic poetic voices i’ve encountered. On the one hand, his delivery tends to adhere to the same general tone, register and dynamic, yet he’s nonetheless very far from being impassive. On the contrary, he’s often disarmingly akin to a kind of East End manifestation of Viz comic’s gentleman thug Raffles, filling the air with mumbling, possibly-(probably-)inebriated purple prose before threatening to punch your teeth down your throat. Yet just as important is the nature of the words spilling out of his mouth, which veer between stream-of-consciousness and deeply-considered proclamation, thereby encompassing nonsense and profundity, embracing eloquence and profanity. i confess – and, in light of Soar, it does feel like a confession – that there have been many times i’ve felt that it’s not what Rodgers is saying that’s most significant but the way that he’s saying it: a periphrastic paradox melding the coherent and the incomprehensible – or to return to that opening quotation/question, a dream that, beyond its ability to provoke, bewilder and enchant, may well not mean anything.

Yet with Soar that possibility is emphatically challenged. By being published in this way, Rodgers’ elusive texts have been rendered tangible, made more concrete. Beyond this, considering that Rodgers’ words have always preceded Wall’s music – which responds to and essentially ‘clothes’ the words in a supportive, sympathetic soundworld – and, furthermore, that these texts are not always represented verbatim in the finished pieces (certain lines being elided or missing) has the effect of lending the printed texts the quality of an imprimatur, elevating their significance. At least, that’s one way of looking at it; another would be to regard the printed texts as the springboard for not only Wall’s but also Rodgers’ creative spontaneity, never so much reciting his own words as riffing off them, messing around further with their already inscrutable substance, structure and syntax. Read more

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