CD/Digital releases

New releases: John Wall & Mark Durgan, John Edwards/Mark Sanders/John Wall

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know how fascinated i am by the music of John Wall, and the last couple of months have seen two new releases featuring Wall alongside some his most long-standing collaborators.

In collusion with Mark Durgan is Contrapt, a 39-minute sequence of pieces culled from free improvisations the duo made over a three-year period, from 2012 to 2015. In Wall’s case, ‘culled’ would seem to be precisely the right word. i’ll say more about this when discussing the other disc, but the fact that three years’ worth of improvisations can be distilled down into not much more than half an hour says something to the way in which Wall approaches the editing process (in all of Wall’s collaborations, he is responsible for the editing of the material).

There are instances, particularly in Wall’s more recent output, when the different tracks on a disc can feel disconnected from one another, like separately-filmed scenes placed side-by-side to form a movie demarcated by jump-cuts. But not on Contrapt. Here, the seven tracks become segments of a larger, integral whole, cross-referential both specifically (in terms of material) and generally (behaviour and timbral palette). One of the most striking qualities displayed throughout the disc is physicality. Electronic music so often sounds like what it is – a stream of 0s and 1s that, whatever their lineage may be, reside within and emerge from the processing circuits of a computer. But throughout Contrapt there’s a vivid sense of objects (whether real or virtual) being wielded, handled, struck and otherwise manipulated, sometimes shape-shifting into tubular noise formations, substituting impacts with turbulence. As ever, the relationship between pitch and noise is a fascinating one. It’s easy to focus on the fragmented, filigree surfaces, or get swept along on the torrential streams of burbling grit and glitter (which i’ve previously likened to ‘alien data’) but within and around them broader sonic events take place. Underlaid low tones appear in the eponymous first segment, distant and ephemeral but present nonetheless, whereas in ‘Rapt’ pitch is used more overtly, forming lovely gliding tones that spiral spontaneously out from the main texture before being absorbed back into it. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: New Estonian Choral Music, Tõnu Kõrvits – Moorland Elegies, Galina Grigorjeva – Nature Morte

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To bring this first Estonia in Focus weekend to a close, some excellent CDs of Estonian contemporary choral music have been released in the last few months. Together they admirably demonstrate the considerable range and richness of compositional thought typical of the country’s new music scene. For a broad but in-depth overview of this scene, there’s a superb new anthology released by the Estonian Music Information Centre, the primary and superbly supportive outlet for the country’s musical output (at present, the disc only appears to be available directly from there). It contains music by no fewer than ten composers, works all written within the last 15 years.

Folksong, whether clearly invoked or implied, is an influence in several of the pieces. Most obviously in Kristo Matson‘s Three Estonian Folk Songs, a strangely-structured work – the middle ‘song’ is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it hardly counts – and perhaps a little too simplistic for its own good, but with some pretty moments, particularly in the opening song. Piret Rips-Laul‘s Paradisi Gloria is similarly simple, and regarding the album as a whole feels like the odd one out, more redolent of the sugary choral styles so prevalent in the US, tapping into a harmonic world not unlike Morten Lauridsen’s but without the scrunchy diatonics. Also with a folk sensibility, but greater invention and beauty, is Maria Kõrvits‘ work for female choir Haned-luiged (Geese-Swans), essentially homophonic but here and there enriched with sustained chords behind, while Mariliis Valkonen‘s Usalduse jõgi (River of Trust) widens the scope of such simplicity, combining relatively rigid underpinning (via drones) with a mixture of unified declamation and bursts of more textural music. Many of the works on this disc have love as a central theme. In Near by Evelin Seppar, setting texts by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s implicit rather than stated (Seppar’s partner conducts the choir for whom it was written), though the work’s strong upward movements that coalesce around the phrase “mystic shape”, and the overwhelmingly passionate outpouring heard later, answered by a soft, heartfelt conclusion, make the subtext abundantly clear. Born in 1958, Toivo Tulev is the elder statesman here, and not simply in terms of age: Tulev has acted in the role of composition teacher for four of the other featured composers. Though the two movements from his 2007 vocal cycle Sonnets are unfortunately marred by an imperfect recording (afflicted with a low hum), the stirring melancholy that Tulev wrings from Dante’s La vita nuova is crystal clear. First the choir laments and consoles itself as a kind of close-knit support group, before turning outwards in a more emotionally raw episode that benefits from sounding intuitive, the contrast between loud, high outbursts and sustained softer passages making this arguably the most direct music on the disc. Read more

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New (Nordic) releases: Vilde&Inga, Nordic Affect, Trio Aristos, Iceland Symphony Orchestra

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There’s been a number of very interesting new releases recently featuring composers and performers from the Nordic countries. At the most unconventional end of the spectrum are violinist Vilde Sandve Alnæs and double bassist Inga Margrete Aas, a Norwegian duo who perform free-improvised music together as Vilde&Inga. Their new album Silfr, released last month on the experimental Sofa label, features ten pieces that demonstrate the fascinating way the duo utilises their instruments to explore a single idea. This in itself is quite refreshing. So much contemporary music seeks to cram shedloads of invention into even relatively short works that to hear such a single-minded approach as that on Silfr is somewhat novel, even courageous. The most extreme pieces are so unwavering as to seem almost behaviourally solipsistic. ‘Røykkvarts’ (“smoky quartz”) comprises an essentially unpitched texture of assorted scratchings and scrapings – so anonymous it’s hard to tell it’s being executed on string instruments at all – with occasional pizzicato pitches allowed to resonate. Though ostensibly more rapid, ‘Sprø Glimmer’ (“crazy glimmer”) is similar, placing high, unstoppable, glistening arpeggiations against an only slightly less intense tremolando, riddled with overtones, while ‘Aurum’ is located in weak, bleak territory, the instruments barely able to speak to the point that the background ambience becomes a distinct presence in its own right. The title piece is the most immersive of these, setting up a moto perpetuo of tremolandi and ricochets, stretching out notes at various points until the whole thing has its pitch content erased towards the end, culminating in the noise of frantic physical movements. Fantastic. Read more

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Another Timbre: Canadian Composers Series (Part 1)

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Among the most interesting releases to have come out in the opening months of this year are the first five discs in Another Timbre‘s Canadian Composers Series. It’s an ambitious project that seeks to provide an overview of, if not the entirety of contemporary Canadian compositional thought (which is hugely diverse), then at least some of its more contemplative protagonists. The five composers featured on these discs – Martin ArnoldIsaiah CeccarelliMarc SabatLinda Catlin Smith and Chiyoko Szlavnics – in some respects have a great deal in common, though it would be pushing it to think of them as musically ‘related’. If anything can be said to typify them all, in addition to the contemplative aspect i mentioned, it’s a certain type of intensity that, whether preoccupied with carefully-managed processes or a more free-form arrangement of materials, seems utterly focused to the exclusion of all else. These are composers who gaze fixedly at their ideas in a way that makes a very deep impression and in its own way leads to a distinct kind of quiet provocation. Read more

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February/March 2017 listenings

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Of the music that’s been making a special impact on me in the last couple of months, i particularly want to flag up various albums of piano music. Peter Hill‘s renowned three-disc recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s epic cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been reissued under license from Unicorn by Treasure Island Music. i honestly wonder whether this may be the most wholly immersive recording of piano music that i’ve ever heard. This is partly due to Messiaen’s intricately worked out sense of narrative, occupying an imaginary day listening to the birds around him, each movement focusing on a different creature. Extreme contrasts and shifts of character and attitude occur constantly throughout, Messiaen capturing the various behaviours and mannerisms of these birds in different contexts (Book 4, devoted to the Reed Warbler, being one of the most radical in its variety). But the depth of immersion comes just as much from Peter Hill’s staggeringly virtuosic and transparent performance (the recording quality is simply immaculate). Every note and chord is positioned and aligned with utmost precision yet, paradoxically, at the same time seems to be the product of raw improvisatory élan, as though the music were emerging from Messiaen’s mind in real time. Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 3. Piano music

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It’s only a few days until Michael Finnissy‘s 70th birthday year comes to an end, so in the nick of time, here’s the final part of my retrospective of his music released by his most loyal label, Metier. In turning to the piano music, i’m conscious that, to some extent, i’m setting myself up for failure. The piano is of such massive, fundamental significance to Finnissy – his website lists 172 works for the instrument, more than half his entire output – that to engage with this music meaningfully would require many more thousands of words than i can devote to them on this occasion. By my own admission, then, never will a surface have been so barely scratched. But it doesn’t take much more than a scratch to start uncovering a wealth of inspirations – musical, philosophical, political, sexual, ideological, technical – teeming within these works to an extent that, even for Finnissy, is startlingly extensive. There is, initially at least, something overwhelmingly daunting about this, yet it would be a mistake to regard Finnissy’s piano output as so many multi-faceted puzzles that can only be ‘got’ once all of their extrinsic influences have been grasped, parsed and assimilated. Nothing, i would venture, could be further from the truth: without wishing to put words into the composer’s mouth, i have little doubt that the notion of his music as some kind of ‘test’ would be completely anathema to Finnissy. Besides, all of them – without fail – communicate themselves with an immediacy and power that sets them apart both within his own output as well as from the majority of 20th and 21st century piano-writing. They can be enjoyed at surface level and also in the rich, subterranean layers of inspiration that lie beneath. To me, Finnissy’s piano music seems not unlike a kind of archaeological artefact: the more one goes digging, the more unexpected delights are to be discovered.

Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn’t sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy’s most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer’s most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace. Read more

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January 2017 listenings

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i remarked in passing recently about the disparity between music i’ve listened to and music i’ve (not) written about, so as an adjunct to my reviews of new releases, i’m going to offer a brief monthly insight into some of the more interesting and/or noteworthy things to have entered my ears. Belatedly, here’s January’s:

Ari Mason – Creatures

i’m totally new to Ari Mason’s music, but stumbled across her 2015 single ‘Dim the Lights’ at the start of the year, which in turn led to me exploring Creatures, her first album. ‘Dim the Lights’ is included and is easily one of the album’s highlights, a really catchy song that i return to unhealthily often, with a half-speed chorus that’s a lovely touch, undermining the song’s sense of pace (the song is available as a free download on a three-track EP). Mason’s voice has a deliciously deep register and a smoky timbre, which in this light synthpop context makes for a beautifully effective combination, shot through with trace elements of melancholy. i wish i’d encountered Creatures sooner; it would definitely have appeared on my best of 2016 list. [Bandcamp]

Rose Elinor Dougall – Stellular

It’s slightly disgraceful that i’ve never yet written about Dougall’s output on 5:4, as i’ve been a fan ever since she did the right thing and went solo many, many years ago. Suffice it to say i have everything she’s released to date, which perhaps says something. It’s been a long wait for Stellular (her first album, Without Why, came out in 2010) but well worth it. Standout songs are ‘Strange Warnings’ and ‘Stellular’, but the whole album is a real treat, blending tip-of-the-tongue hints of something retro with an irresistably fresh pop outlook. If this whets your appetite, i highly recommend her 2013 EP Future Vanishes (which features a nice earlier version of ‘Strange Warnings’), the title track of which is one of the best pop songs i’ve heard in absolutely years. [Amazon]

Köhnen Pandí Duo – Darkness Comes In Two’s

Simply amazing; review here.

The Thing With Five Eyes – KOSMOS

Linked to the above release due to the leadership of Jason Köhnen, this is another iteration of what was once The Kilimajaro Darkjazz Ensemble and The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. Also titled in Persian (كون), KOSMOS includes all four tracks from the group’s separately available EP نور, along with loads of unreleased pieces, forming a stunning one-hour tapestry of post-apocalyptic jazz elements flecked and frazzled with beautiful, brute force electronics. [Bandcamp]

Cristobal Tapia De Veer – The Girl With All The Gifts (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of last year’s best movies – and one of the most intelligent films to explore, admittedly obliquely (and with a twist), the otherwise tired zombie apocalypse trope – gets an equally admirable soundtrack courtesy of Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia De Veer. Gentle yet eerie, tender but menacing, it has refreshingly little to do with conventional movie scores, opting instead to surround and nourish the film’s narrative with a score that evokes, alludes and hints, often from a distance, rather than trying to spoon-feed or manipulate at point-blank range. [Bandcamp]

One other brief thought: i was listening quite a bit to Mica Levi‘s score for Jackie last month, and it’s baffling that it should have received the attention it has, including an Academy Award nomination, considering how inferior it is to the music she composed for Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing film Under the Skin a few years ago. She’s clearly an interesting composer – i’ve written about her on several occasions – but much of the attention her music for Jackie has received – particularly from film critic Mark Kermode, who has bizarrely convinced himself it’s of major importance – is sheer hyperbole. To be clear: the score to Jackie is careful, nuanced and at times wonderfully and appropriately weird (though never as much as in the film’s remarkable, highly-concentrated trailer), but much of it, heard in isolation, is plain atmospheric blah, instantly forgettable, whereas her music for Under the Skin, entirely ignored by the Academy, remains one of the most innovative, chillingly effective approaches to film music of the last ten or twenty years, every moment of it impossible to forget. That score absolutely should have been awarded an Oscar, but not this one. Credit where credit’s due.

 

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Studies vol. 3/Electric Spring

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A couple of electronic music announcements. First, if you’ll forgive the self-pluggery, i’m pleased to announce that the third volume of my ongoing series of Studies is now available. (Many thanks to all of you who have purchased volumes 1 and 2.) The Studies explore my interest in structuring sound materials from an initially visual perspective, an approach i describe as ‘Op music’, a sonic equivalent of Op art. The three studies on Vol. 3 are highly diverse. No. 12 is an exploration of near parallel pitch movement, resulting in shepard tone-like sequences and a shifting, paradoxical sense of stasis and movement. No. 13 examines the juxtaposition of freely-evolving sounds within an imposed metric system, positioning quasi-random clouds of pitch within an grid-like arrangement. Vol. 3 ends with my longest study to date, No. 10. Its 14-minute duration begins with a vast number of tightly packed pitch bands, moving as one; over time, these gradually drift out of alignment, resulting in complex waves and patterns of harmonic distribution and introducing elements of implied melody. The work is complicated further by a central episode, the noise of which permeates this process and threatens to disrupt it from within.

Studies vol. 3 is a digital-only EP, available via Bandcamp. The accompanying artwork has again been created by the marvellous Polish generative artist Tomasz Sulej (folds2d.tumblr.com). All three pieces can be streamed below.


Second, more importantly, Huddersfield University’s annual Electric Spring festival kicks off this Wednesday, running until Sunday. Once again it features a typically diverse collection of composers, many of whom are happily new to me. Alex McLean and Dave Smith will be performing improvisations, Mark Lyken & Emma Dove are presenting their film Mirror Lands, Argentine composer Beatriz Ferreyra (well-known particularly for her work composed as part of Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales) is represented in three electronic works including her brand new 16-channel work Los senderos de luz y sombras, premièred last month in Paris, and Richard Scott will bring the festival to an end with a suite of analogue synth pieces. These concerts are supplemented with opening acts from Tadej DroljcDemelza Kooij & Lars Koens, Geoff Cox & Keith MarleyFrédéric DufeuSolomiya Moroz & Marko Ivic and Elías Merino. Each concert

All are preceded by pre-concert talks, and there’s a keynote talk from filmmaker Andrew Kötting. There are two additional late night concerts on Friday and Saturday nights, and throughout the festival there’s an interactive installation by Stewart Worthy called Speaker Grid situated in the Creative Arts Building’s large atrium. Everything is free – everything – so it’s a fabulous opportunity for some really new sonic experiences. i’ll be there for the duration, and will be reviewing as much as i can. Full details are available on the Electric Spring website, where you can also download the festival programme.

 

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Beguiling/bemusing, pretentious/profound: the continuing challenge of Wandelweiser

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There’s a lot of music that i don’t write about. That’s kind of an obvious, even stupid thing to say: what i mean is that there’s a lot of music that i listen to that i don’t then write about. Invariably it’s due to some fundamentally problematic aspect that makes recommending it to others less of a necessity than a slightly cruel prank. Before i continue (and momentarily to digress), i must stress that i generally avoid thinking of composers in terms of trends, ‘schools’, ‘isms’ and other group terms that bundle them together due to some spurious connection, but considering the particular composers i’m writing about today have deliberately grouped themselves together, it seems appropriate to regard them in that way. To continue then: Wandelweiser. There’s a lot of Wandelweiser that i’ve listened to that i haven’t written about. A lot. And this fact has strangely been gnawing away at me recently as i’ve been pondering the latest batch of CD releases to have come from the Wandelweiser stable. To be fair to myself, i haven’t avoided them entirely: before HCMF 2015—at which Jürg Frey was composer-in-residence—i examined some of the then recent output from both him and a couple of other Wandelweiser composers, and there’s been a sprinkling of subsequent encounters, all i now realise also in conjunction with events going on at Huddersfield. This belies the fact that i have actually listened to an immense amount of their output, and it struck me recently that, instead of avoiding writing about it due to the conflicted reactions it so often engenders, perhaps that’s a worthwhile, even an important subject worthy of discussion in and of itself. Read more

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Ravaging, torrential, ravishing, triumphant: Köhnen Pandí Duo – Darkness Comes in Two’s

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There’s a time to get excited about music, and there’s a time to leap around with irresistible, exuberant elation. 2017 is less than two weeks old, and already I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ve heard what will prove to be one of its very best albums. Looking back over the last decade, one of its most epic recurring zeniths—running through it like a range of mountains towering over almost everything else—has been the output from two sibling projects of Dutch musician Jason KöhnenThe Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble and The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. They’ve appeared on 5:4 on numerous occasions—TMFDC’s Anthropomorphic was my best album of 2011, Roadburn was almost my best of 2013, and both groups have been featured on several of my mixtapes—and what draws me in so inexorably every time is its astoundingly complex amalgam of breathless improvisational play with doom-laden but paean-like (post-)apocalyptic melancholy. That’s slightly more true of TMFDC than TKDE (the former being the live improvisation version of the latter’s more rigorous compositional approach), and it’s equally the case with Köhnen’s latest project, Köhnen Pandí Duo, a collaboration with Hungarian drummer Balazs Pandí, best known in the last five or six years for his work with Merzbow. The duo’s first album, Darkness Comes in Two’s (sic), was digitally released a couple of days ago, and it’s not just something special, it’s incredible. Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 2. Chamber music

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As with his vocal works, Michael Finnissy‘s chamber music is represented on four Metier discs, comprising around twenty pieces composed across three decades, from 1977 to 2007. This is only a miniscule proportion of Finnissy’s vast quantity of chamber music, but it nonetheless provides a valuable demonstration of various aspects of his compositional language. Above all, his omnipresent engagement with existing musical materials, which while often manifested in Finnissy’s music to varying degrees of convolution and obfuscation, could hardly be more overwhelmingly obvious in Metier’s 2013 CD featuring two works for piano quintet. Read more

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New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin

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It’s been good to get back to the plethora of new releases that have have found their way to my door in recent weeks and months. While i don’t like to make spurious connections between disparate pieces of music, i’ve been fascinated at the way various composers explore the interplay between what we might call the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. In Morton Feldman‘s 1976 ‘Beckett trilogy’—comprising Orchestra for orchestra, Elemental Procedures for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra and Routine Investigations for six players, released together on a CD from Wergo titled Beckett Material—this interplay manifests itself, as it so often does in his work, in the implications of a tension between the aurally deliberate and coincidental. In Orchestra, for example, we hear a collection of seemingly disjointed bursts of material, brief slivers of ideas, as though Feldman had extracted a load of ‘salient points’ from a host of sources and strung them together. The result is music that constantly seems significant yet what it signifies is moot, continually reconfigured by context. In tandem with this is one’s perception of what constitutes a ‘connection’ between ideas, prompting a continual reappraisal of whether imitation and continuity are actually taking place or are imagined by-products of Feldman’s placement of materials. This extends even to something as simple as a melody; a recurring idea in all three pieces involves the irregular cycling of a small group of pitches that at first appear melodic but soon seem either arbitrary or subject to a more unpredictable type of permutation. Read more

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New releases: NEOS box sets – Donaueschinger Musiktage 2014, Darmstadt Aural Documents Box 3: Ensembles

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What with the increase in listeners turning away from physical releases in favour of digital downloads, and in light of yet another (admittedly somewhat spurious) article this week offhandedly proclaiming the imminent death of the album, the efforts of German label NEOS to put out large, lavish box sets are both absurd and marvellous in their optimistic enthusiasm. No other label does contemporary music like NEOS; in terms of quality and quantity, they are leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, with an immense breadth of scope that’s doggedly committed to some of the most risk-taking, experimental music-making going on anywhere.

It’s NEOS who are responsible for issuing annual accounts of the goings-on at the Donaueschinger Musiktage (this year’s begins in a little over a week). The 2014 festival is represented, as usual, with a box set of four discs, though on this occasion the fourth disc is a DVD. The set features twelve large-scale compositions (many of them world premières), running to nearly seven hours of music, affording one the rare opportunity really to immerse oneself in a festival; for once, the cliché that it’s the next best thing to actually being there is entirely true. It would take a dissertation to discuss them all, but there are several that stand out more than the rest, such as Friedrich Cerha‘s Nacht for orchestra, seemingly split down the middle with its first half occupied with complex textures moving from high to low registers. The second half is sparer and more melodic, and has something of the searching freedom that typified the free atonal period; it’s really very lovely, with a later sense of poised tension released in a last-minute burst. For the first 90 seconds of Hanspeter Kyburz‘s Ibant obscuri, barely anything happens; but then, suddenly, it lurches out of the shadows, and the sheer size of his large orchestra makes itself intimidatingly felt in loud shrieks and thrusting accents (i’m not doing justice to it, it sounds literally massive). A bit like Cerha, its latter half has a melodic urge, seeking expression amidst a chaos of wonderfully unpredictable turbulence (including something akin to a wobble-board duet). The final few minutes are thrilling, ending in dazed repetitions of a single low note. Read more

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New releases: symphonies by Paul von Klenau, Peter Maxwell Davies, Andrzej Panufnik, Xiaogang Ye & Per Nørgård

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It’s high time i got back to appraising some of the more interesting new releases. No fewer than three contemporary pieces bearing the title ‘symphony’ were performed at this year’s Proms, and coincidentally quite a few of the CDs i’ve been sent have also featured 20th and 21st century symphonies. What constitutes a ‘symphony’ these days is a good question, one that these six albums don’t so much answer as offer an assortment of interpretations of what it might mean. Read more

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New digital EP: Studies, vol. 1

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It’s been a while since my last CD release, so i’m especially pleased to announce that, a few days ago, i brought out a new EP, the first in an ongoing series. Those of you familiar with my earlier electronic work will know that there’s been a tendency to embrace extremes. My last two discs, Night Liminal and Dither • Pother • Roil exemplify that pretty strongly. For the last couple of years, my electronic music has turned away from this mode of expression, focusing instead on a more indirect, allusive type of utterance, which has its roots in one of my earliest electronic pieces, Triptych, May/July 2009, as well as the Simulated Music cycle.

This has resulted in a growing collection of Studies, pieces that primarily explore my interest in structuring sound materials from an initially visual perspective, many of which i regard as something that might be called ‘Op Music’, a sonic equivalent of Op Art. Diverse in character, some highly abstract, others moving through clear progressions and processes of evolution and development, these Studies are all entirely synthetic, sculpted from raw electronic sounds without use of existing sound materials. As in much of my earlier work, the juxtaposition of pitch and noise and the reappraisal of what defines each (and their boundaries) continue to be recurring features of these pieces.

i’ll be making a selection of these Studies available in an ongoing series of digital-only EPs, the first of which, vol. 1, is now available, from my Bandcamp site (which includes lossless) as well as iTunes and Google Play. For those of you who like to try before you buy, the EP can be streamed via Spotify (embed below).

The accompanying artwork is by the Polish generative artist Tomasz Sulej, whose work i find inspiring and very beautiful, and which makes a perfect analogue for the soundworld of the Studies.

Further volumes of these pieces will be released during the months ahead.


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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 1. Vocal music

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Composers habitually form relationships with performers and ensembles, but less often with record labels. And while various labels have put out one or two releases featuring the music of Michael Finnissy, only one, Metier, part of the multi-faceted Divine Art Recordings Group, has shown substantial long-term commitment to his output. To date, Metier has devoted no fewer than 12 albums to Finnissy, comprising a whopping 18 hours of his music, the earliest, Folklore, released in 1998, the most recent, Singular Voices, earlier this year. So to continue my celebrations of Finnissy’s 70th birthday, over the next few months i’m going to take a look back at this diverse collection of discs, beginning with those featuring his vocal music.

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New releases: Stefan Fraunberger, Michael Moser, Morton Feldman, John Wall

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Easily the most sonically remarkable new release to have passed through the jukebox in the last month or so is Quellgeister #2 ‘Wurmloch’ by the Austrian sound artist Stefan Fraunberger. This ongoing series of works (#1 came out two years ago, #3 is in progress) focuses on what Fraunberger summarises as “semi-ruined organs discovered in deserted Saxon churches in Transylvania”. Precisely what he does with these dilapidated organs isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that of a Frankenstein-like in extremis battle to resurrect the instrument and enable it, for one final time, to speak. Aural narratives really don’t come more stunningly heroic than this. Having wheezed into life, the organ’s reanimated corpse unleashes barrages of chords that constantly sound unnaturally forced, only sustaining as long as its innards are being ‘squeezed’ (try singing a note for far too long and you’ll get the idea). Weird tangential pitches and upper harmonics regularly bleach these chords, even occasionally suggesting there’s a melody trying to escape from beyond the grave; elsewhere the struggle (for both man and machine) becomes so intense that vast dissonant slabs of compressed noise erupt. On the one hand, it’s shambolic and desperate, but there’s an uncanny beauty both to Fraunberger’s seemingly absurd actions and to the, frankly, amazing results. Read more

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New releases: Helmut Lachenmann – Ausklang; »… Zwei Gefühle …«, Musik mit Leonardo; Schreiben

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i’ve been catching up lately with some of the more recent releases from NEOS, who for a long time have distinguished themselves as not just one of the most forward-looking labels, but easily one of the most fecund, putting out at least one major release every month, often in the form of absurdly impressive box sets. Among this acute embarrassment of riches are a pair of discs featuring music by Helmut Lachenmann, recorded at the 2014 Musiva Viva weekend. Both of them are refreshing, challenging and mesmerising in roughly equal measure, and are highly recommended.

The first is devoted to Lachenmann’s 1985 work Ausklang, the subtitle of which – “music for piano and orchestra” – indicates it to be not exactly adhering to conventional notions of the concerto. It’s nothing of the kind, in fact, exploring instead the idea of sustaining sounds from the piano beyond their natural resonance, or as Lachenmann puts it, a “variety of attempts to prevent the material set in vibration by an impulse … from dying away”. That makes Ausklang sound pretty straightforward, but it really isn’t. The relationship between piano and orchestra is not inherently hierarchical, actions from the former being responded to by the latter. The orchestra (which includes a piano of its own) often can be heard to anticipate, foreshadow or even inspire ideas that then transpire in modified form on the solo instrument. And while there are of course a multitude of instances where pitch, rhythm and other aspects of musical behaviour are resonated, echoed, imitated and otherwise extended by the orchestra, to say that these instances are always obvious, clear or even apparent would be wrong. Indeed, there are several occasions when the music appears to occupy two simultaneous layers, undertaking more of a duet than a back-and-forth. So the emergent complexities of Lachenmann’s rather simply stated intentions are considerable. Read more

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New releases: Monty Adkins & Terri Hron, Åke Parmerud, Francis Dhomont

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The latest crop of releases from Canadian label Empreintes DIGITALes has proved as thought-provoking as ever, offering extremely diverse approaches to electronic music, with similarly varied results. Léptidoptères, a new 40-minute cycle of music by composer Monty Adkins in collaboration with recorder player Terri Hron, takes its inspiration, as the name implies, from families of butterflies and moths. The relationship between the various recorders used and the electronic sounds is deliberately flexible, allowing Hron scope for improvisation both materially and structurally. Selections from a distinct palette of sounds are triggered randomly, creating a ‘habitat’ for Hron, which are subsequently shaped by envelopes that, in Adkins’ words, “focus on specific families or combinations of families of sounds”. The first thing to say is that Léptidoptères is generally at some remove from the ambient aesthetic that’s characterised the majority of Adkins’ work in recent years. That in itself is a welcome and interesting development. In its place is a soundworld more spontaneous and unpredictable, where one’s listening focus is drawn primarily to the shifting, moment-by-moment articulations and textural shadings. The relationship between acoustic and electronic is well-balanced, neither predominating overall, taking turns to assume predominance in the foreground. Read more

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New releases: Olga Neuwirth – Goodnight Mommy (Original Soundtrack)

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Despite being a complete movie addict, as well as having nurtured a fascination with soundtracks since i was a boy, movie scores rarely get discussed on 5:4. There have been notable exceptions, and some invariably find their way onto my annual best album lists, but i often find myself pondering whether, despite my love for them, there’s usually something qualitatively inferior about them. To clarify, i don’t believe that film soundtracks, by necessity or nature, are inherently inferior; there’s certainly no reason why they should be, despite the fact that they are, first and foremost, serving a very clear functional role, working in conjunction with visual elements, mise en scène, sound design, narrative and the like, elements usually irrelevant within the concert hall. In this respect, it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a film score to prove engaging when heard in its own right, away from these elements. But the best of them don’t merely survive such decontextualisation, they thrive, providing an analogue of sorts of the movie, embodying a more intangible yet no less cogent kind of transposed narrative. In other words, they no longer necessarily follow the chronology of the film’s storyline (many soundtracks, indeed, are not arranged in ‘story order’ but are configured for a satisfying aural experience), offering instead a sequence of portraits, sonic windows into its characters and their situations. Calling them ‘mood pieces’ would be to sell them short, yet there’s more than a whiff of truth to that. Read more

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