CD/Digital releases

Magical, jewel-like: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

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In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty AdkinsFragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, & the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.

The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, & connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy & imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she & Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon & exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:

the smudging & blushing of colours & motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another & allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect & are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.

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A spine-tingling fusion: Alone Architect

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A release i’ve been anticipating for a while came out recently: the self-titled debut EP from Alone Architect. Much of the best electronica-fuelled songwriting in recent times has emanated from Canada, & Alone Architect is no exception, being the project of Montreal musician Jeff Feldman. Feldman posted a couple of teaser tracks online some weeks back, one of which featured the unique vocalisations of Elsieanne Caplette, chanteuse of the outstanding duo Elsiane. The song in question, “The Incision”, proved absolutely captivating, & promised big things for Feldman’s forthcoming EP; it does not disappoint.

The EP comprises six tracks whose brand of electronica is dark bordering on nocturnal. But it’s not yet another generic exercise in pseudo-post-apocalyptic knob-twiddling; on the contrary, rhythmic drive & overt lyricism pervade Feldman’s darkness, adorning it with splashes of colour & lightening its heavy undertones. Opening track ‘Moth to Flame’ exhibits both, although with a sense of distance. Feldman spends some time establishing layers of accompaniment (drawing heavily on the spectre of late ’70s Jean-Michel Jarre), & when his voice finally enters, the lyrics are bent out of shape almost to the point of obscurity. However, this is more than just a song—the absence of a chorus in its structure reinforces the point—& its climactic moments are carried by music alone, the words falling silent. It’s followed by the goth-inflected “Not Alone”, sung by Angela Boismenu whose voice seems to combine the best aspects of Cher & Amy Lee. Laid back in tempo, it nonetheless packs no little punch in the choruses, a punch that Feldman ramps up as the song progresses. Lyrically, despite the convolution of its poetry there’s real passion here, made all the more potent by a switch to triplet rhythms in the middle 8 & the abrupt fragility at the start of the coda. Read more

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The concerto reinvented: Jakob Kullberg – Momentum: Nordic Cello Concertos

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i’ve commented in the past about the number of contemporary composers drawn to writing violin concertos—they’ve been a regular fixture among the works premièred at the Proms in the last few years—but personally, i’ve always been more drawn to the cello concerto. Composers exploring this medium seem, almost unavoidably, to feel the urge to tap into things deep & profound—or at least, profoundly mysterious. This is definitely what pervades one of the more interesting CDs i’ve been sent recently, a disc that has been strangely ignored by most commentators. Showcasing the seriously impressive talent of Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg, together with the Poland-based New Music Orchestra conducted by Szymon Bywalec, the disc explores cello concertos by arguably the three most renowned Nordic composers, Per Nørgård, Arne Nordheim & Kaija Saariaho. Nørgård’s second cello concerto lends its name to the album as a whole—Momentum—& it’s a wisely chosen title, as the concept of momentum—or more specifically the way it manifests itself within a larger dramatic dialogue—seems to be of central importance in all three pieces. Read more

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Music of a dark & difficult pathology: Tansy Davies – Spine

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Anyone with even a mild interest in contemporary music can’t have failed to encounter the music of Tansy Davies. She’s clearly going through something of a vogue at the moment, the high-profile commissions (including the Proms & King’s College, Cambridge) & performances being complemented more recently by CD releases of her music. Last year saw Troubairitz, a disc by the impressive Azalea ensemble that focussed on several of her more well-known works, including neon & Salt Box. Now NMC Recordings has brought out Spine, a disc that presents more ensemble works alongside a number of chamber & solo pieces. The popularity of Tansy’s music is perhaps easy to understand; stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings & the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy & clarity seem to be important & significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, & which clearly go down well with audiences & ensembles alike. Spine is a more impressive disc than Troubairitz, which painted a somewhat one-dimensional portrait of the composer. As a whole, the scope of the nine works featured on this disc feels more expansive & thoughtful, more mature. There’s a demonstrable effort in most of the pieces to root or at least connect modernity to concepts, practices & objects from an earlier time, such as shamanism (Iris), ritualism (Dark Ground), fossils (spine) as well as existing musical material (make black white; Loopholes & Lynchpins). The result is music of a dark & difficult pathology. Read more

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Attraction & resistance: NMC Debut Discs – music by Huw Watkins, Dai Fujikura & Sam Hayden

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i don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe NMC Recordings as one of the bastions of contemporary music in the UK. For as long as i’ve been listening to new music (more than two decades now), NMC’s output has been a dependable point of continuity, & many of their releases have become both landmarks & benchmarks in the history of late 20th- & early 21st century British music. So it’s exciting to see NMC embarking on a bold new initiative: Debut Discs, a new series of 12 recordings to be released over the next four years, exploring the music of “emerging British composers”, whose music is currently under-represented on CD. Launched last month, the first three discs are devoted to the music of Dai Fujikura, Sam Hayden & Huw Watkins. They make for a stimulating & highly contrasting trio, one that resists & attracts in roughly equal measure.

Huw Watkins’ music is emphatically the latter, being by far the most accessible of the three. He opts for a nostalgic brand of music, earnest & lyrical, harking back to an earlier time. There’s nothing pastiche about what he does, & yet it seems entirely right to describe the five pieces on his disc as “neo-romantic”. Melody presides, & while Watkins affords them the opportunity for considerable variety & invention, there’s the unshakeable feeling that one’s heard all this before. The skill with which the pieces are put together can hardly be criticised—there’s not a note out of place, & Watkins’ sense of drama is strong—but the shadows of their progenitors are often so potent as to be a fatal distraction. The piano music—represented here in one of Watkins’ earlier works, the Four Spencer Pieces, played with consummate skill by the composer—manages to loosen its bonds to the past, but they’re the exception on an album that’s otherwise frustratingly over-familiar & straight-laced.

Caught betwixt the extremes of attraction & resistance is the music of Dai Fujikura (born in Osaka but resident in England since his mid-teens). The forthright independence of Fujikura’s compositional manner is striking, eschewing the styles & mannerisms of his birthplace; indeed, “Everytime I see some ‘Japanesenesses’ in my own score when I am composing, I delete them”. The five pieces on his disc comprise three substantial ensemble works & two brief solos, all very different in nature & instrumentation. What unites them is a fresh relationship with lyricism, one that allows Fujikura the possibility to go where his ideas take him, where unexpected episodes or shifts feel entirely comfortable (a quality he shares with Takemitsu, but for entirely his own reasons). The sudden bassoon cadenza in Secret Forest is an almost shockingly fragile hiatus in what is otherwise a dense & homogeneous work, dominated by huge bursts of string activity, while the latter half of Phantom Pulse somehow abruptly navigates from percussive bombast to a cloud of resonant lacework with no ill effects. But it’s the closing work, Okeanos, that shows off Fujikura’s skill best, the introduction of sho & koto contributing in no small part to its deeply hypnotic (& at times gorgeous) five movements.

Discussion of Sam Hayden’s music has hitherto been dogged by references to its apparent inaccessibility. But his music requires no apologia; it’s true that it is both powerfully demonstrative & utterly individual, but if ever there was a perfect invitation to the listener to sit up & engage with something on its own, genuinely new, terms, this is it. Everything about these four ensemble pieces (plus an electroacoustic chamber work as a bonus download) cries out its contemporary credentials, from the compositional techniques Hayden uses (brief descriptions of which double as programme notes) to the titles of the works, & there are times when it almost feels like a kind of aesthetic clipping is happening. But overall, it’s an invigorating kind of resistance, & gazing into the textures & structures Hayden creates is simultaneously disorienting & captivating. It’s not without its problems; in misguided, the intended momentum seems to short circuit under the strain of its stop-start material, & both system/error & presence/absence come across less as immersive encounters than (undeniably impressive) spectator sports. However, in the 20-minute Die Modularitäten, Hayden finds a perfect synthesis of his techniques & outlook; its polyphony is highly dramatic & deeply engaging, less a series of episodes than a large, unfolding narrative with a plethora of twists en route; & the moments when electronics lurk, barely audible, at the periphery are pure magic. Bonus work schismatics is also outstanding, the solo violin establishing a dialogue with electronics that one doesn’t just follow, but is pulled right into its epicentre.

All three releases are available on CD everywhere, & on download from the NMC shop.

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No small triumph: Carla Rees & Scott Miller – Devices and Desires

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Many’s the time in the last few years when, both in the concert hall & at home, i’ve found myself listening to yet more music for random-acoustic-instrument plus electronics—& been absolutely bored off my face. The quest for novelty seems to have ruled the electroacoustic roost for years & years, dominated by an approach to music-making that largely consists of: instrumentalist plays some material; computer (i.e. Max/MSP patch) does something with that material; instrumentalist responds to the computer; & back & forth until one of them decides to stop. Often the nature of the relationship between player & computer, as well as a sense of structural coherence & inner logic, are both fuzzy & ill-defined, & while works like this may perhaps have a skin-deep beauty that’s briefly beguiling, ephemerality remains their strongest characteristic.

It’s no small triumph, then, that the new CD from Carla Rees & Scott Miller, exploring music for flute & electronics, is so exciting & memorable. The title, Devices and Desires, is allusive—not a million miles from Ligeti’s ‘Clocks & Clouds’—evoking cool & hot impulses, a juxtaposition of measured rationality with unpredictable whim. From this melting pot of head & heart, Rees & Miller have created six pieces that each occupy a different position on the composed/improvised continuum, including “a fully composed work …, structured improvisations … and free improvisations … All of the electronic sound heard on the CD is the result of processing the sound of the flute, whether in real-time, from a sample taken earlier in the performance, or from a recording made years before we made the recording” (from Scott Miller’s programme notes). Both flute & computer fall outside convention; Miller uses the Kyma X sound design environment, while Rees uses a Kingma System C flute, an instrument designed to enable quartertones to be easily played. These instruments were brought together in “an inspired three-hour recording session”, & the result is Devices and Desires.
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20 years on: The Orb – Blue Room

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Twenty years ago today, The Orb released one of their finest & most legendary creations, the single Blue Room. It became famous immediately due to its length; at 39’58”, it was tantalisingly close to the durational limit set by Gallup, who ran the UK charts, which classified anything of 40 minutes or more as an album. Not surprisingly, therefore, Blue Room instantly became the longest single in UK chart history, which it remains to this day. But Blue Room deserves to be remembered & celebrated most for its embodiment of The Orb’s unique approach to music-making, seamlessly integrating the ostensibly incongruous & hitherto distant idioms of dub & ambient, garnished with elements of minimalism, house & psychedelia.

The track took five months to create, The Orb’s Alex Paterson & Thrash joined by the renowned Steve Hillage & Jah Wobble, whose guitar & bass contributions sat alongside synth from Miquette Giraudy (Hillage’s partner & bandmate from their days as Gong), & a vocal riff by Aisha, sampled from her 1986 track ‘The Creator’. Combined with the ambient dub electronics of Paterson & Thrash, these were the raw elements from which Blue Room was created. The track’s title, incidentally, is a reference to a hangar located at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which certain conspiracy theorists have convinced themselves houses “extraterrestrial spacecraft and bodies“; this theme would be taken further on The Orb’s second album, U.F.Orb, which includes a drastically shortened version of Blue Room.

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