The Isolation Mixtapes : H

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This week’s Isolation Mixtape exploring some of the best music from the last decade focuses on composers, artists and groups beginning with the letter H. Two tracks from of the year’s 2010 to 2019, once again explored in chronological order. All the previous mixtapes can be found on the Mixtapes page.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with approximate timings and links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Páll Ragnar Pálsson – Atonement

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One of the first works of contemporary music that i ever got to know was Dérive 1 by Pierre Boulez. i fell for the piece pretty hard, and one of the main reasons for that infatuation – which hasn’t really subsided in the decades since – was the way Boulez constructs pretty much the entire fabric of the work from tremulous fibres that constantly vibrate, shimmer and thrum as if an electric current were coursing through them. Paradoxically, a palpable stillness emerges despite all this surface movement (not unlike the surface of water covered in pond skaters), creating a soundworld pulsating with life while conveying an air of quiet solemnity. A similar quality permeates the five chamber compositions on Atonement, a new portrait disc of music by Icelandic composer Páll Ragnar Pálsson.

The connection is reinforced by the fact that all of these works use a similar instrumental line-up to Derive 1, performed in this recording by Iceland’s premier new music group, Caput Ensemble. All but one of them also feature a voice – soprano Tui Hirv, the composer’s wife – exploring texts that draw on folk hymns, Icelandic poetry and the screenplay of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. The nature of the active/static paradox is arguably most telling in the one instrumental work, in no small part because of the challenge thrown down by its title: Lucidity. On first contact, it’s tempting to consider that there’s something ironic about the idea of clarity or revelation coming from its tangled textures. But, it seems to me, the essence of what makes all five of these pieces tick is to be found in this piece. There’s the distinct sense that what we’re hearing, what the ensemble is doing, is less about cause than effect: an inner response to an outer stimulus, like a mind or soul being made to shake and resonate by something external. It’s rather like hearing the output of a seismograph – not an unreasonable analogy for a composer who has also written pieces titled Quake and Afterquake – with each instrument’s tremulant material the indication of some deep, profound movement. Read more

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Tõnu Kõrvits – Hymns to the Northern Lights

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For those of you who prefer a little less avant in your garde, consider the latest portrait disc of music by Tõnu Kõrvits. Kõrvits occupies an interesting position within the Estonian contemporary scene. His music embodies a great deal of the conservatism that tends to typify new music from that country – a situation that is gradually changing – yet it’s also mischievous, quixotic and capricious, often turning out to be something more or other than first appearances might suggest. Additionally, he’s by far the most lyrical Estonian composer i’ve encountered (and that’s saying something), unafraid to allow his music to expand seemingly unchecked into vast, passionately romantic (with both a small and large ‘R’) reveries – though often these are coloured in such a way that they simultaneously convey an air or at least a trace of unease. The new disc of his work, Hymns to the Northern Lights, performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Risto Joost, is an excellent demonstration of all these traits.

While it’s hard not to get caught up in the intensity of Kõrvits’ music, there are times when its more traditional creative outlook is frustrating. Elegies of Thule, composed in 2007 and by far the oldest work on this disc (everything else dates from the last decade) is an exercise in incidental music-like middle-of-the-road meandering. A work for strings, it has some typically effective orchestrational touches – particularly the smeary texture that occupies the first half of final movement ‘I Look Up to the Hill’ – but engaging moments like this only make the rest of the piece feel all the more light and cloyingly filmic. Leaving Capri, another string piece, seems at first to be similarly safe but the security of its harmonic language – conveying the kind of repressed billowing passions that would suit an Austen period drama – has enough flecks of melancholia to render it mildly askew. It brings to mind his 2015 work Moorland Elegies (reviewed here) which used a similar approach to explore the poetry of Emily Brontë. More melancholic, and more engrossing, is the 7-minute Tears Fantasy, an exquisite piece that throughout manages to sound soft yet weighty. Drawing on renaissance musical models (primarily Dowland) it has the tone and focus of a passacaglia, often sounding so heavy-laden that the clarity of its construction (both horizontally and vertically) is obfuscated; we only get a clearer sense of what’s happening when Kõrvits pulls things back and reduces the forces. It’s highly effective, all the more so as it never sounds anything other than emotionally direct – to the point that when the lyricism is allowed some space it’s among the most beautiful of Kõrvits’ music that i’ve ever heard. The more vague final third appears to loses focus, though if anything it clarifies the disquiet at the heart of this powerful piece, making for a fittingly uncomfortable emotive experience. Read more

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Olga Neuwirth – …miramondo multiplo…

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It’s always nice when music you’ve encountered in a previous context finds its way onto disc. That’s true of two of the three works on the latest CD of Olga Neuwirth‘s music, released by Kairos. i first heard Neuwirth’s viola concerto Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory during the 2012 Proms, when it received its UK première. In my review at the time i was particularly drawn to the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, and that remains one of its most beguiling aspects. However, on the strength of this new recording – featuring soloist Antoine Tamestit and the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, conducted by Susanna Mälkki – i’ve found myself revising my opinion about the nature of this relationship. Previously it seemed to be less about collaboration than a kind of rough-and-tumble with mixed levels of friendliness, but here there’s a much greater sense of mutual sympathy. The multiple strains, glimpses and half-echoes of earlier music are a communal impulse, one that, while the viola acts as a figurehead for it, is nonetheless embedded in the behaviour of the orchestra. For me, the second and fourth movements still remain the work’s most compelling sections, the former featuring delicious accompanying sequences where the soloist is distantly surrounded by a network of falling gossamer threads, the latter moving from a dance-like opening into a passionate demonstration of dual interaction, the orchestra letting out emphatic accents that punctuate and reinforce the viola’s ongoing melodic train of thought. Remnants of Songs is hugely dramatic, containing vast climactic bursts of energy, yet it never loses sight of the lyrical mindset that dominates the piece. In that sense, it’s a pretty conflicted work, but that only makes it all the more engaging. Read more

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Outside-In: Þóranna Björnsdóttir

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The latest contribution to the Outside-In field recording compilation is from Icelandic composer and sound-artist Þóranna Björnsdóttir. Þóranna has written the following introduction to her recording:

In November 2017, I embarked on a journey to South Africa to participate in the 5th Annual Sonic Mmabolela workshop/residency. Conceived and directed by Francisco López, Sonic Mmabolela is a two-week programme for professional and semi-professional sound artists and composers with previous experience in the area of sound experimentation and sound recordings. It takes place at Mmabolela Reserve, in the Limpopo province of South Africa, right at the border with Botswana. It involves field work, studio work and theoretical/discussion presentations. The residency has a special focus on creative approaches to working with environmental sound recordings, as well as to the role of listening, through an extensive exploration of natural sound environments. It does not have a technical character but is instead conceived and directed towards (i) the questioning of canonical conceptions of so-called ‘field recordings’, and (ii) the development and realisation of projects of sonic creation by the participant artists/composers with the recordings gathered, and through the experience of dedicated listening in natural environments.

The stay at Limpopo and the field listening were a transformational experience for me. The impact of the sounds coming from the diverse fauna in the area stimulated all my senses, creating senses of well being, stress, fear and awe – connecting and transcending various mental associations and emotions.

At dawn on the 18 November 2017, while waiting to collect recording gear from another location, I attached my small Roland R-09HR to a windmill pumping water which was standing at the location where I was waiting. I became fascinated by the metal-scraping rusty music and rhythm this windmill was making, and the ambience it created in combination with the sounds of the fauna around. We are in the midst of a membrane between night and day. I sense, and wonder, about my being. I hear the birds sing, the wind howl, flies buzzing, insects swarming, noise, persistent, squall, dense, rhythmic, drilling. I glide vertical, swinging horizontal, deep, mighty. My perception without restrictions. Impressive surroundings surrounding my awareness, seizing intuition, strengthening hope.

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The Isolation Mixtapes : G

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And the beat lockdown goes on, so here’s a new Isolation Mixtape, exploring some of the very best sounds from the years 2010–19, focusing on artists, composers and groups beginning with the letter G. As always, none of the tracks have been featured in any previous 5:4 mixtapes, and once again i’ve worked through them in chronological order. All of the previous mixtapes (Isolation and otherwise) can be found here.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with approximate timings and links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Franui – Ennui

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If you’ve been finding that the current state of lockdown and isolation has been making you feel bored or world-weary, then Ennui, the latest release by Austrian ensemble Franui might just be exactly what you need – regardless whether that’s empathy or escapism. Franui are well-known for their arrangements and adaptations of classical music, and these form the foundation of the album. However, these adaptations – including Mozart, Bartók, Schubert, Schumann and Satie – are all decidedly off-kilter, exacerbated by being juxtaposed and mashed together such that they often feel as if their notes are literally sliding around (or even off) the page. That’s one part of Ennui; the other is a series of pithy spoken texts, drawing on and/or freely adapted from the likes of Georg Büchner, Kierkegaard, Matthias Claudius, Walter Benjamin and John Cage, each of which has something to say on the subjects of listlessness, weariness and boredom.

Combined together in this way, the album brings to mind the left-field absurdist wit of William Walton and Edith Sitwell’s Façade (now almost a century old). If this suggests that Ennui can be regarded as an “entertainment”, that is most definitely the case. The ensemble’s treatment of the original music – often drawn from their composers’ ‘occasional’ works, such as divertimenti – is deliberately amusing, though it’s important to stress that it’s not played for laughs. Indeed, there are times when it’s like listening to someone blind drunk trying to communicate something deadly serious, conveying a disconcerting form of black humour. And there are times when its kilter is not remotely off, such as in the central movement ‘Teure Mutter’ [dear Mother] that hypnotically melds together fragments of a funeral march with echoes of the grotesque double bass ‘Frère Jacques’ melody from Mahler’s First Symphony. Likewise, the album’s closing piece, based on Mozart, though titled ‘Ouverture ennuyeuse’ [boring overture] is nothing of the kind, being one of the prettiest things i’ve heard in a while, a kind of tired, soothing lullaby. Read more

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Outside-In: Kenneth Kirschner

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The next field recording in the Outside-In compilation comes from US composer Kenneth Kirschner. It’s another nocturnal recording, made on Block Island in the state of Rhode Island, off the east coast of the USA.

There’s a lovely sense of calm permeating this recording. The first 90 seconds or so are slightly more intense due to the more obvious presence of muted wind, but the soundscape soon calms and clarifies. In the foreground are assorted cricket and insect calls, all singing out at their own tempo and creating a network of ever-changing cross-rhythms. For me, this is one of the quintessential night-time sounds, and the collection that Kirschner has captured on this occasion are a mesmerising chorus. What i find equally fascinating, though, is the surrounding ambiance: never static, always conveying the vivid impression of life, activity and movement all around, while remaining completely nebulous. Possibly there’s the noise of boats in there somewhere, but these sounds are all the more enjoyable for their being impossible to resolve. It all makes for a highly effective mixture of certainty and uncertainty. Read more

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The Isolation Mixtapes : F

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Another week, another isolation mixtape, this time focusing on groups, composers and artists beginning with the letter F. Twenty tracks, two of the best from each of the years 2010 to 2019, as usual exploring them in chronological order.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with approximate timings and links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Pierre-Luc Lecours – Paysages imaginaires

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Another release on the Mikroclimat label that it’s taken me far too long to spend time with is Paysages imaginaires by Montréal-based composer Pierre-Luc Lecours. As the title – ‘imaginary landscapes’ – implies, the five tracks on this half-hour album create and inhabit artificial environments conjured up through the combination of real-world sounds with synthesizers, electric guitar and bass clarinet (the latter played by Charlotte Layec).

Some of these landscapes allow for a meditative engagement, in part due to a greater sense of passivity in their construction. Final track ‘Suspension’ is the best example of this, the sound of the clarinet a central (even catalytic) presence amidst gently swelling agglomerations of pitch and noise. Over time these swells seem akin to slow accents with extended resonances, embellished later with an assortment of clarinet trills. But for all its movement and detail, there’s a stillness at the heart of this piece, its notes hanging uncannily in the reverberant air. ‘Amor Fati’ is similar, comprising whoozy, vaporous chords and faint plucked string drifting through space. The environment is shaken by a number of restrained blows from its depths, triggering the appearance of numerous tolling bells; but again, the tone remains relatively calm and there’s the impression that this activity is happening at some distance – without actively seeking our interest – and we’re hearing it from afar.

More ambitious but still conveying a similar kind of passivity is ‘Passages’, where Lecours introduces sounds indicative of train travel. Around these are a collection of diaphanous floating notes and chords, as well as a low drone that only slowly emerges, while the clarinet is concerned with minimalistic gestures, primarily repeated notes and arpeggios. This palette of sounds becomes the basis for a music that continually tilts between light and shadow, speed and stasis, vagueness and clarity, intimacy and distance. Placid noodlings are answered by deep throbs; high clarinet squalls (sometimes not unlike animal calls) have their energy quickly dissipated in the atmosphere; clattering, hard-edged momentum is countered by smooth melodic shapes. The result is a curious equilibrium in which, to a greater extent than in ‘Amor Fati’ and ‘Suspension’, every action is to some degree a counterpoint to the preceding one, the total of all these actions being a kind of zero sum. Again, ‘Passages’ invites a meditative form of engagement yet its music happily fits few if any of the clichés and conventions associated with that kind of listening. Read more

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Érick d’Orion & Guillaume Cliche – PUNT

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One of the mid-length releases i’ve been revelling in most lately is PUNT by Érick d’Orion and Guillaume Cliche. It exhibits something i always treasure in music of all kinds: complexity as the product of relative simplicity (which is usually the most interesting kind of complexity). The nine electronic pieces on PUNT, which were improvised and range from around 2½ to 6 minutes’ duration, share a lot of similarities. Perhaps the most obvious, because it features so often, is the superposition of very rapid ticks or pulses with material that either seems contrastingly suspended or manifests in amorphous, nebulous forms.

What’s so exciting about these superpositions is how they’re dramatic in their own right – forming extended periods of mounting and/or maintained tension – and regularly lead to or even precipitate instances of eruption and overload. It’s a simple but highly effective melding of (ostensible) stability and free-wheeling caprice that has the most hypnotic effect (each time i listen i find myself forgetting to breathe). In opening track ‘blitz’ it forms the basis for what feels like the most prolonged build-up you’ve ever heard, yet this sequence lasts less than 90 seconds. What ensues is pure exhilaration: a deep throbbing drone and thwanging bass notes absolutely caked in the most squelching, squalling detritus. ‘yard’ behaves similarly, accumulating layers of rapid-fire ticking that continue despite being plunged into a sticky miasma through which muted traces of where we came from can be dimly heard far above. It’s one of a number of instances throughout PUNT where the re-emergence into the musical ‘light’ triggers an irrevocable corrosion, its elements quickly falling apart and dissolving before our ears. Read more

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Outside-In: Ian Wilson

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The latest contribution to the Outside-In project, exploring diverse field recordings, comes from composer Ian Wilson. Unlike the previously-featured recordings, this one is nocturnal. Ian says this about it:

The recording was made on 20th April in the heart of the south Serbian countryside, just outside the village of Međureč, not far from the city of Jagodina but far enough to feel in the middle of nowhere. We’re in lockdown here from 6pm to 5am and I made the recording just after 10pm in the garden of the place we’re staying in – no human noise apart from (weirdly) some gunshots in the distance, which is unusual. A poacher, we think. I used an old Zoom H2 for the recording, which was made in what is part-garden, part-allotment surrounding the house, and this particular bird likes to sit in one of the trees at the bottom and sing all night.

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The Isolation Mixtapes : E

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For the new Isolation Mixtape i’ve ramped up the intensity somewhat, so be prepared to pump up the volume to the max for this one. This week i’m focusing on artists, composers and groups beginning with the letter E, once again selecting two fantabulous tracks from each of the years 2010 to 2019, going through them in chronological order.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with approximate timings and links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Nokuit – Live at Cafe OTO

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While it remains impossible to experience live performances at the moment, i’ve been enjoying doing it virtually by immersing myself in Live at Cafe OTO, a recording of the half-hour debut performance given there in summer 2018 by sound artist Nokuit. i need to cut to the chase with this one: the thing i love most about it is the ambiguity of its tone. It’s an ambiguity nicely suggested in the cover artwork, where a dark, grainy image (possibly of a distant block of flats) is aggressively challenged by an explosion of impossible brightness in the foreground. A similar polarisation of black and white can be heard in the music, conveying both a Damoclesian dystopian doom alongside burning shafts of hopeful radiance. It makes for a highly dramatic, almost melodramatic, narrative, caught in a volatile space where we find ourselves pulled down, brought low, only then to be buoyed up and raised aloft, in every sense elevated.

The music emerges out of Cafe OTO’s murmuring ambiance into a mess of squeaky friction and unintelligible speech, a disorienting but engaging opening that soon finds stability in a powerful 2-note (major third) bass oscillation. Even as early as this, though, there’s an ominous tinge to this stability, and it’s hard to say whether it’s a relief or not to return to the more confusing melée of elements that eventually causes it to break down, channelled through a forceful column of noise. This intense balancing act continues through similarly sharp contrasts of clarity and (un)certainty: a beautiful, intense early climax around nine minutes in, laden with squelch and pounding impacts, breaks apart and suddenly everything is just ticking over, pulled back but poised. A new semitone oscillation starts up, its tones rippling with distortion like beams of light too bright for dark-adapted eyes to be able to register them properly. Read more

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Liquid Transmitter – Meander

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Another mid-length album i’ve recently been immersing myself within is Meander by Liquid Transmitter, nom de guerre for Canadian sound artist Jamie Drouin. Both the title and the artist’s pseudonym are well-suited to the six tracks on this album. They operate in a way that sits on the cusp of what we perceive to be active or passive decision-making, and throughout there’s the distinct impression of sound objects behaving like liquefied matter. These aspects combine to evoke Eno-esque sound environments, and this is no accident: Drouin describes the six pieces as

conceptual retreats from the failings/flailings of the world at large. They function as backdrops to basic activities of the day, elevating these actions, and tinting my living space.

It would be reasonable to think of each of these compositions as a ‘diatonic liquid’, the motes of pitch floating in each one being aligned to and for the most part limited by its respective modality. This effectively bestows on each piece a unique colour palette, so perhaps it’s not too fanciful, considering the combination of liquid, floating and colour, to say that Meander is somewhat akin to the behaviour of a lava lamp. Read more

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Jonas Sjøvaag – Commuter Music

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i don’t know if it’s a weird kind of defocused, more-easily-distracted side-effect of the lockdown, but lately i’ve been finding it easiest to engage with mid-length albums where i can immerse myself for half an hour or so. Happily, quite a few of these have found their way to me in recent times, among them Commuter Music by Norwegian musician Jonas Sjøvaag. Sjøvaag is a drummer, jazz musician and improviser, aspects that all audibly feed into the tone and aesthetic that permeates Commuter Music, which is most redolent of 1970s kosmische musik. The album is even structured in the same way as Tangerine Dream’s classics Atem and Phaedra, beginning with the longest track durations that get progressively shorter. Without being overtly pastiche, what the music captures nicely is the simultaneous combination of slow- and fast- moving elements that typifies that kind of music, along with an improvisational nature in which seemingly anything could materialise above these sleek surface layers and sound entirely congruous.

The titles of the three tracks indicate they’re essentially variations on this same behavioural theme. ‘First leg’ exhibits an overall sense of oscillating or tilting between adjacent underlying harmonies while filigree details play out over this foundation. Its development is signposted by gentle shifts in the behaviour: the introduction of a faster bassline; a 3-beat tapping pulse that feels in and out of sync at the same time; the introduction of guitar chords; electronic pulses striking the beat for a while. The kind of equilibrium created here is lovely, continually allowing us to drift away (or even off) in its stasis, pulling us back in at these periodic moments of evolution and change. It’s easy to hear how these kind of structures formed the basis for what would become ambient music at the end of the ’70s. Details are harder to make out in ‘Second stretch’, existing in the environs of a deep buzzy and throbbing drone. A languid deep pulse proves intriguing – are they beats or pitches? and ultimately, what’s the difference? – and other elements are similarly tentative, comprising light percussive taps and cowbell-like tremolos. The most prominent action taking place here comes with the appearance of a low analogue synth melody that causes everything to ramp up in intensity before subsiding back into the omnipresent drone. ‘Third Wave’ concludes the album with what is initially beat-based music, a kind of nervous tic itching and shuffling against which an assortment of sounds ping and collide. Around halfway through, following the most blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of mini-climax, the music dramatically shape-shifts into rapid rising plunky arpeggios delicately dusted with blips and brushes. Read more

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Outside-In: Simon Cummings

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The latest addition to the Outside-In compilation of field recordings is one of my own. i’m sure i’m not alone in noticing how much more prominent birdsong has become during the lockdown, which is really wonderful. i’ve been fascinated by birdsong for many, many years, and lots of my field recordings focus on birds in some way.

This recording was made almost ten years ago, on 23 May 2010, during a gorgeously hot, sunny day spent exploring the National Nature Reserve at Bridgwater Bay in south-west England, which looks out across the River Severn towards Wales. The shoreline itself was characterised by just two birds, skylarks on the beach and reed warblers in the marshes and reed beds, but moving just slightly further away from the beach yielded an amazing increase in bird numbers. The tip of the reserve is on the Steart Peninsula, and i was curious to see how far its small, single-track road could go before reaching the water. It turned out that the road abruptly stopped next to a house appropriately named At the Very End of the Road. Read more

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The Isolation Mixtapes : D

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Here’s the fourth in my weekly serious of Isolation Mixtapes, which will hopefully provide a distraction from the lockdown along with a large dose of celebration of great music from the last decade. As usual, i’ve allowed myself two tracks from each of the years 2010 to 2019, working through them in chronological order, and all artists this time start with the letter D.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with approximate timings and links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Yfat Soul Zisso – Together, alone

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At the moment, stuck in the lockdown with no foreseeable end, i’m experiencing (like, i imagine, many people) good days and bad days – the former when my mind is focused and energised, the latter when it feels flat and enervated. It’s a situation that’s made a chamber work i heard last October take on a richer meaning. Together, alone by Yfat Soul Zisso is a piece that very obviously channels disquiet, discomfort and pain, drawing on the sensation of feeling isolated even when surrounded by others. It’s a sense of dislocation and separation that i recognise myself, one that has taken on extra dimensions in the current climate when the word “social” can hardly be uttered without being followed by “distance”.

The piece has a Skempton-like simplicity – by which i mean it’s deceptive, not actually simple at all. That being said, Zisso’s music is also very clear and immediate. Initially, we hear an F-sharp minor chord sequence; it’s stable, yet at the same time it’s obviously fragile, sounding desperately elegiac. Over time that stability is revealed to be, depending on your perspective, either precarious or downright non-existent. Two unities come undone: the players no longer operate as a group, by turns breaking off independently, in the process thinning out the chords and questioning the group’s actions; and the harmonic integrity of those chords is made oblique by an increasing intrusion of microtones. The result is a blurred semblance of something identifiable, like trying to see clearly through eyes filled with tears. There’s an implied frustration underpinning and/or arising from this, made plain in the agonising sequence of repeated chords that ends the piece, hammer blows that just feel completely numb. Read more

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Outside-In: Jonathan Coleclough

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i’ve today added a new recording to the Outside-In compilation, this time by sound artist Jonathan Coleclough. If you’re not familiar with Coleclough’s work, i can’t recommend it highly enough; there are a couple of freebies available on Bandcamp, and beyond these i would cite two of his early works, Cake and Windlass, as being among his finest creations. Before turning to Coleclough’s Outside-In contribution, if you have a recording you would like to be considered for this project, please see the Call for Recordings information at the bottom of the article.

Coleclough’s recording was made beside a stream called Holy Brook. He says this about the recording:

This recording was made on 28 March 2020, at about 2pm on a windy afternoon. The location is a small bridge over the Holy Brook, Coley Park, Reading, UK. Latitude 51.442113, Longitude -0.987193; Ordnance Survey map grid reference SU 70489 71944.

The recording was made using in-ear stereo microphones (Roland CS-10EM) under fluffy wind-muffs, so you get a good stereo image listening on headphones.

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