CD/Digital releases

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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Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

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This week i’ll be exploring four new albums of contemporary orchestral music that i’ve recently been spending time with, the first of which turned out to be a surprisingly big disappointment. Last year i was very impressed by Recurrence, a disc put out by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, mainly due to its inclusion of a three-movement work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason titled Emergence. On the considerable strength of that piece, i’d been looking forward to Bjarnason’s latest album of music, Collider, released on Bedroom Community a little over a month ago. A digital-only release, it features three works: Blow Bright and Collider, both orchestral, plus a small-scale setting of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for youth choir and orchestra, The Isle Is Full Of Noises.

While none of the pieces are very good, it’s unfortunate that the album is named after the worst of them. At 15 minutes’ duration, Collider has plenty going on in it, and if you’re willing and/or able to engage with it on a purely superficial level then there’s possibly some enjoyment to be had. But beneath the surface, there’s essentially nothing of any substance to be found. This is, to put it bluntly, painting-by-numbers orchestral writing: a bit of generic brooding here, a bit of scattershot textural mayhem there, unfocused blather that Bjarnason tries to make meaningful through minimalistic outbursts (faux-excitement) and saccharine, filmic lyricism (faux-emotion). Writing music that’s as boringly over-familiar and formulaic as this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it all feels so deliberately manipulative. Yawn/yuck. Read more

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Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 2)

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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. Read more

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all that dust: music by Morton Feldman, Matthew Shlomowitz, Séverine Ballon, Milton Babbitt and Luigi Nono

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The launching of a new label devoted to contemporary music is something to celebrate, and the newest kid on the block is all that dust, the brainchild of composer Newton Armstrong, soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop. The label’s first five releases have recently appeared, and there are a couple of things to say more generally before getting stuck into them individually. First, all that dust is a label not only concerned with the newest of the new; two of these releases are works composed in 1964, and another dates from the early ’80s. Second, all that dust is interested in digital as a valuable medium in its own right: two of the releases are only available digitally, and have been specifically engineered for binaural listening. Third, the label’s approach to presentation is slick but nicely generic, opting for abstract artwork rather than tailoring each one with something personalised. This somewhat extends to the liner notes, which while they do at least provide some context for the music are generally rather meagre and perfunctory. Overall, though, in terms of presentation what all that dust are clearly seeking to emphasise above all else is the music, indicating that we shouldn’t fuss about admiring fancy covers or reading lengthy tracts but just launch as quickly as possible into these five very different soundworlds. Hard to argue with that. Read more

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