Thematic series

Gabriel Jackson – Justorum animæ

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The aspect of death explored in Gabriel Jackson‘s short choral work Justorum animæ is on the peace it brings to the souls of the departed, a fitting theme for today, being All Souls’ Day. The Latin text is drawn from the offertory from yesterday’s liturgies for All Saints’ Day, originating in the apocryphal book of Wisdom, and like so many texts (and human acts) that grapple with death, it is primarily focussed on the living, seeking to bring some reassurance to we who are left behind. Their souls, we are told, “are in the hand of God”, and while the second line seems a bit confusing—how can they not be touched by “the torment of death” when they are patently dead?—the overriding message that no more harm can come to them is self-evidently true.

Jackson’s music embraces the soothing thrust of the words, setting them almost like a lullaby, lilting phrases atop soft, oscillating diatonic chords that appropriately defy a sense of cadential finality. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: V/Vm – The Death of Rave

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In the last few days i’ve highlighted some impressive examples of music composed on an ‘epic’ scale. i’ve saved the biggest until last, but even by saying that, i’ve touched on an inherent danger lurking in a discussion of this kind. When any musical parameter is taken to a compositional extreme, the mere act of doing that starts to rupture a work’s integrity, as much æsthetically as practically. Let’s put it another way; what interests me so much in a work like Robert Rich’s Somnium is both what he’s striving to do and the way in which he’s trying to do it. It’s a piece that requires its duration to be extreme, but it’s not a piece about duration; the danger is to put undue—or, worse, all—emphasis on that one aspect, and thereby fracture one’s holistic appreciation of the piece. One might argue, reasonably, that it’s difficult to ignore the durational aspect of a work lasting seven hours; but that’s not, hopefully, what one’s thinking about as each minute passes in Somnium—or, indeed, in the Trilogy in Three Parts, Blemished Breasts, or July 17, 2010. When setting out to explore these five ‘contemporary epics’, extended duration was my common thread, but i hope it’s been clear that that aspect is ultimately an integral component in a much larger and richer whole; in a nutshell, what these pieces share is that their extensive durations fully support and are at the service of the music. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Robert Rich – Somnium

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In the previous few articles, it may seem as though i’ve been avoiding the very obvious elephant in the room. So let’s confront it now: large-scale musical ‘epics’ of the kind i’ve been exploring present formidable problems to the listener. Assuming one can find the time to devote to it, there’s the issue of focus, of trying to maintain some semblance of concentration for a very much longer-than-usual period of time; furthermore, attempting to hear each passing event within the wider context of the whole (rather than just listening superficially) becomes a strenuous and potentially unwieldy activity. i accept that these are very real challenges with such music, and while i can speak from experience and state that it’s something that becomes much less of a problem the more one becomes acquainted with large-scale music, the fourth ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to examine is a work that could be said to tackle the reality of this situation head-on—or, at least, take a fundamentally different approach to it.

The composer Robert Rich established his reputation in the early 1980s, as a composer whose live performances took place through the night. In part they were concerts, yet more importantly to Rich they were experiments, investigating the ways in which sound can stimulate periods of REM sleep. At these events, the audience would take its place on the floor, actively encouraged—and this may sound paradoxical—to interact with Rich’s performance through the act of sleep, engaging with the music through the gauze of a semi-conscious mind. These “sleep concerts” directly influenced the albums Rich released around this time; his debut album Sunyata (1982) pared down its content to a minimum—echoing the title, which is a Buddhist concept approximating to ’emptiness’ or ‘void’—while at the same time greatly expanding its duration to better facilitate a meditative listening state (originally released on cassette, the album was unusual at lasting almost 86 minutes). The titles of his next two albums, Trances and Drones (both 1983), made explicit the kind of deeply subliminal interrelationship Rich wanted his music to have with its audience, whether experienced live or at home.

The most telling example of this is his magnum opus Somnium, released in 2001. Having alluded to the nature of the “sleep concerts” through a prolific series of albums, on Somnium Rich sought to return to the source and directly replicate that experience. The only way to do that faithfully was for the music to be heard right through the night; hence the reason for Somnium‘s massive duration, lasting a little over seven hours. So Somnium presents the listener with the ultimate challenge, a work of unprecedented length, but it also presents its own solution, stated clearly in the title, inviting its audience to experience it through sleep. In the accompanying notes, Rich helpfully elucidates on the nature of that interaction:

The term “Sleep Concert” can be a bit misleading, as it implies that this music is intended to help you sleep deeply. On the contrary, when you play Somnium at night, you may find that you sleep less deeply, and wake up more often. The idea is to let the music incorporate itself into your perceptual framework during the night, to create a sonic surround, an environment for unique states of consciousness. The music is aimed at the nebulous territory that exists in your mind when you are hovering between awake and asleep, when you are still aware of your environment, yet detached, when your half-sleeping mind wanders into the realm of hypnogogic images and dreamlike non-linearity. You might find that this music can act as a trigger for these flowing thoughts, and the activation of the environment around you can help you to skate around the edges of sleep, with one foot in the dream world and one foot in the room where you are sleeping.

While Somnium occupies a vast, single durational span, it does pass through three distinct periods: into, during, and out from the period of REM sleep. To that end, the outer parts (which each last 2½ hours) are profoundly gentle, a warm cushion characterised by soft-edged chords slowly drifting in space, shifting from one formation to another. That’s not to suggest the music is aimless—on the contrary, despite requiring a different kind of perspective, they are in fact overtly functional, with a clear sense of direction towards and away from the crucial central period. Unsurprisingly, though, speed of movement throughout is infinitessimal; an oriental flute, heard prominently at the beginning of Part 1, takes 20 minutes to be absorbed into a chord that oscillates on its axis, and a further 20 minutes pass while that chord loses its substance, leaving nothing but a deep drone and soft amphibian noises. Deep clusters throb, becoming a solid slab, hovering massively; it drifts further away, yet still sends out a shuddering bass that seems to probe the ears. Water sounds feature both here and throughout Somnium; the work begins with light rain, and assorted trickles and droplets are a recurring idea. Both the conclusion of Part 1 and much of the first half of Part 3 are ostensibly static, the former ebbing away into an indistinct and hollow place, coloured with wind, the latter focussing on chords seemingly reluctant to stir (although their surfaces bristle with life), yet ever feeling as though they might move at any moment. The second half of Part 3, returning gradually to conscious reality, includes a potent sequence of pulses resonating in the depths, and reintroduces the bird and animal calls from earlier; they predominate towards the conclusion, conjuring up (and, if heard through the night, literally accompanying) the sounds of morning.

But i find the more demonstrative 2-hour central period to be even more mesmeric. At first, there’s the sensation we’re heading into a territory of loops; not so, it develops into a deep, softly shimmering texture, from which a hint of melody yields to distant animal calls. Chords oscillate, feeling vast in a sonic space as infinite as this, taking new forms that bring to mind the consistency of galaxies. Rich doesn’t wrap his REM-based listener in aural cotton wool, though; metallic surges assert themselves, and pitches coalesce into a distinct 7th chord about halfway through. When added to by a rich, warm bass, the music becomes boldly substantial, even powerful—Rich may be concerned with sleep interaction, but Somnium is by no means seeking merely to tranquillise its audience with a 7-hour lullaby. The sound of the sea is introduced, matched with gentle dissonances, culminating in isolated metallic strikes—akin to Buddhist monastery bells—that cause deep ripples in the texture, passing into the final period with brief loud roars crashing like waves. It’s remarkable just how much Part 2 contrasts with its neighbours; at times—i don’t think this is exaggerating—it almost seems to be provocative (at least, to someone half-asleep).

Beyond this, it makes little or no sense to discuss Somnium‘s minutiæ; that’s not why they’re there, and in any case, when listened to as the composer intended, the amount of detail filtering through will vary from person to person and from occasion to occasion. For myself, i’ve listened to it through the night—glimpsing it as and when my fuzzy attention found something to grasp onto—and can testify to a uniquely fascinating trip (in every sense, that word seems right). and i’ve also listened to it ‘cold’, my attention raptly focussed, and can honestly say i find it just as rewarding in this context too—except, of course, it makes for an entirely different experience. However one hears it, Somnium is a truly unique musical encounter.

When Somnium was first released, the only practicable format was DVD-audio; but even this was problematic, requiring that Part 2 be compressed in order to fit all the audio onto the disc. It’s fitting that in this 10th anniversary year Somnium has been reissued as a digital download; the lossless (FLAC) version represents the first time the piece has been heard in its original, uncompressed state—it’s thereby the best option, better even than the original DVD release. The download can be bought from Musiczeit here, and as usual there’s an MP3 option for those with poor hearing. The DVD can still be bought directly from Robert Rich here, where you can also read Rich’s extensive notes about the piece, as well as his advice for how best to listen to it. The DVD can also be bought from CD Baby, but it’s worth pointing out that the MP3 download available there is a drastically edited version, lasting a mere 73 minutes, barely a tenth of the original duration, and is therefore to be avoided.

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Contemporary Epics: The Hafler Trio – Trilogy in Three Parts

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It’s impossible to speak of ‘contemporary epics’ without given especial mention to The Hafler Trio (the nom de guerre of Andrew McKenzie). While Kenneth Kirschner and Pat Maherr, discussed previously, usually restrict themselves to relatively modest durations, it’s rare for music by The Hafler Trio not to exceed an hour or more. This characteristic dates back as far as 1991, with the release of Kill the King, its single span lasting 73 minutes; the companion albums Mastery of Money (1992) and How to Reform Mankind (1994), ran to 75 and 78 minutes respectively. Those three albums form a trilogy, and large-scale trilogies have continued to be a feature of the Hafler Trio œuvre. Exactly As I Say (2004), Exactly As I Am (2005) and Exactly As I Do (2005), each double albums, together form a trilogy lasting almost 5½ hours. How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (2003) and sister work How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (Lengthwise) (2004) are each trilogies in their own right; together they too last nearly 5½ hours. Most recently, McKenzie’s occasional collaboration with Autechre has finally become a trilogy with the release in August of ae3o3 (which on its own has a duration of 3¾ hours); together with æ³o and h³æ (2003) and æo³ and ³hæ (2005), this trilogy is now the longest of all, stretching to a massive 5¾ hours. Even the albums not part of trilogies occupy long durations: Hljóðmynd (2000; 1 hour), Normally (2003; 2 hours), Where Are You? (2004; 1 hour) and Scissors Cut Arrow (2004; 1¾ hours). On all of these albums, individual tracks occupy a complete CD; faced with music on such a scale, it’s understandable why, quite apart from the multitudinous disjecta membra that red herringly encompass each release—not to mention the eternally bellicose attitude of McKenzie himself—The Hafler Trio can seem off-putting, unapproachable and daunting. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Indignant Senility – Blemished Breasts

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What makes Kenneth Kirschner’s “July 17, 2010” so significant—and, in my view, qualifies it as an ‘epic’—is the fact that its 2-hour duration is not subdivided into sections, or even particularly episodic (although its timbral qualities could be said to have a periodicity of roughly 20 minutes, but that’s just the way i hear it). This is what separates it from the plethora of large-scale albums that have been around for over 60 years, since the double album first came into existence. The prospect of an album lasting two hours or more is less problematic when its duration is broken down into individual songs of no more than a few minutes apiece; it’s still a lot to listen to, granted, but the time is compartmentalised, which does at least make things psychologically simpler. Of course, there will always be the concept album that seeks to be homogeneous, its constituent parts seamlessly working towards the creation of a larger whole, but the qualitative shifts en route—the movement from track to track, with their own internal structures—inevitably mean that the overarching narrative is partitioned, if not entirely broken. At the end of last year, in my summary of the best albums of 2010, one of the key things that impressed me about the winner—Chubby Wolf’s Ornitheology—was its large-scale epic structure; despite being merely a double album (and as such, shorter than many other such albums), it articulated itself in just two 40-minute tracks. The second ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to highlight is very similar to this, and arguably more impressive. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Kenneth Kirschner – July 17, 2010

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Imagine yourself in a situation where you’ve agreed to listen to a piece of music, but have no idea what it is. You get yourself comfortable, and shortly before the music starts, you’re informed that the piece will last three minutes. Now imagine that situation again, but this time you’re told the duration will be 30 minutes; and now a third time, what if you were told the piece was going to last three hours? Each of those scenarios elicits an entirely different psychological response, and this unbidden, preemptive reaction to the prospect of increasingly long durations has fascinated me for years. In all probability, three minutes wouldn’t make anyone bat an eyelid, whereas 30 minutes might well create a bit of tension, sending less focussed minds swiftly out the door. But three hours, i imagine, would exceed most people’s tenacity, resulting in only a small collection of listeners prepared to confront something on such an epic scale. Despite the apparent trend in recent times of attention shifting towards short, individual tracks (an inevitable by-product of download culture), it’s encouraging to see composers continuing to allow their creativity to occupy large-scale sonic canvasses. Admittedly, a couple of years ago i pointedly remarked that, durationally speaking, “size isn’t everything”; of course it isn’t, but nonetheless, works occupying very long periods of time bring about a unique kind of listening experience, one that, at its best, makes the apparent demands on the listener pale beside the rewards it offers. i’m going to explore some of the more interesting recent ‘contemporary epics’ in the next few articles. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – cross-cultural peace and quiet

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Having spent the last four days absorbed in the monastic pattern of life at Burford Priory, i’ve returned home with, among other things, my senses both heightened and sensitised. i’ve needed somewhat gentle stimuli, and so it seems perfect timing to return to my ambient musings, focussing on the the collaborations between Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto. While i know little of Sakamoto’s work beyond these releases, i’m something of a fan of Carsten Nicolai’s work in the guise of Alva Noto; expect a post about his music as and when. Apparently, the nature of the collaboration was rather like that of The Postal Service, the two composers working independently, sending material back and forth, each modifying it further, until both felt that the music was ready. In a way, the polarisation is extreme; Sakamoto confines himself to the piano, around and through which Noto weaves his electronic blips, glitches and patterns. “Weaves” seems entirely the right word; there’s a palpable sense that this music is like an expertly-woven fabric, and this in itself is revealing; so many times have i heard the argument that electronic sounds cannot be integrated properly with acoustic instruments, an argument that seems disproved by the resultant textures of this collaboration. Admittedly, the material is simple and restrained, often to the point of appearing austere (no surprise that i’m drawn back to this music after spending time in a monastery!), and this may account for the success of the blending. Read more

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