Haunted but undaunted, fading yet indefatigable: The Caretaker – Everywhere at the end of time – Stages 2 & 3

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Appropriately enough, considering this evening is Hallowe’en, i began today being haunted by ghosts. To explain: in the early hours, not sufficiently drowsy to return to sleep yet too somnolent even to begin contemplating getting out of bed, i grabbed my headphones and groped blearily on my device for something to listen to. As it turned out, these peculiar, potentially unpromising conditions could hardly have been more perfect for the album that my fingers alighted on: Everywhere at the end of time – Stage 3 by Leyland Kirby’s occasional pseudonym The Caretaker, released a couple of weeks ago. As the title suggests, the work is the latest in Kirby’s ongoing project exploring aspects of memory and dementia.

Much of the music put out over the last ten-or-so years that one might broadly describe as hauntological is problematic. Born from an apparent wave of retromaniacal enthusiasm for tapping into the supposedly mysterious darkness and sinister undertones of an ill-defined ‘past’ (some of which only appear sinister from a contemporary perspective; they never seemed such at the time), the results often comport themselves as ersatz memoradelic mash-ups, counterfeit, superficial musical worlds fashioned from borrowed tropes and mannerisms. It’s cheap and it’s childish, and while there’s no need to name specific names, the Ghost Box Records label has a lot to answer for in fostering it. There are exceptions, of course, lots of them, but what sets Leyland Kirby’s work so far above and beyond almost everything else done in hauntology’s name is its authenticity.

i first got to know Kirby’s music in the mid-2000s, first through Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia, his dazzling 3-hour 2005 survey of disintegrated sonic echoes, consolidated the following year in his gigantic project The Death of Rave (about which i’ve written previously), a 19-hour “audio soup of half remembered rave anthems” that through its seemingly never-ending sequence of noise-caked movements encapsulated an era by channelling subliminal, subconscious and submerged musical memories. Personally speaking, The Death of Rave was a turning point in my relationship with Kirby’s music in two respects. Read more

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Jasun Martz – A Retrospective: Non-Finito; Alchemy; Corrosion; Chroma; The Pillory; The Battle

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Another unusual release i’ve received recently came from Jasun Martz, a US musician and artist of whom i was previously unaware, but a quick search online reveals has apparently been involved in music for almost 50 years, with a variety of both classical and pop/rock connections. What i received consisted of six discs – Non-Finito, Alchemy, Corrosion, Chroma, The Pillory and The Battle, released through January to July this year as an in-depth retrospective of Martz’s output – together with a poster and an original painting by Martz, upon which is attached a ‘Certificate of Art Appraisal’, confidently informing me that its appraised value is no less than $15,000. Ch-ching! The discs are housed in slim digipaks, fronted with further paintings by Martz (all self portraits), and their respective album titles are all prefixed by the phrase ‘Solo Exhibition’, implying that each disc is in fact the sonic component of an audiovisual work (of which the cover may or may not constitute the only visual element). So far, so relatively straightforward.

However, progressing through these six discs it quickly becomes apparent that their contents are connected, with various titles recurring on different albums in partial or completely different forms. So the listening experience has a secondary layer of detective work, puzzling over and deducing the connections between these different manifestations. By the end, i can honestly say they’re easily among the most convoluted interconnecting and overlapping collection of pieces that i’ve yet encountered. Part of that convolution is, depending on your perspective, unnecessary, and there’s a certain amount of duplication – even redundancy – but Martz has clearly aimed to make each disc as long as possible (they’re between 68 and 79 minutes’ duration), and while the discs together constitute Martz’s retrospective – a larger 8-CD box set will also be available at the start of next year – each disc also acts as a smaller-scale retrospective, focusing on specific aspects of his output (in theory; in practice the distinctions are negligible). Read more

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Jeroen Diepenmaat – Double Landscape

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One of the more unusual items to have arrived at my door recently is Double Landscape, by Dutch “visual artist with a preference for sound” Jeroen Diepenmaat. It’s unusual insofar as it comes in the form of a small plastic wallet containing a small business card CDr – which contains just a single track, lasting just a few minutes – together with a fold-out inlay card with drawings of cassette-like images and a download code. It would have been a lot of work to go to for just a few minutes of music, and indeed the download reveals the actual entirety of the album: 84 tracks (the CDr containing just one of them) lasting a little over five hours. That’s a lot of music, but it doesn’t take long to realise that there’s a theme at play here, one that draws connections with both the Roland Kayn box set i reviewed earlier this week as well as the examples of ‘steady state’ music discussed recently.

The Kayn connection is twofold. First, each of the 84 movements is a paradigm of the whole; the way each one behaves is, essentially identical, though the specific details are unique. Second, the range of materials used is relatively small, establishing a strong relationship between the different pieces, which are, in essence, sonic siblings. More on this in a moment. The ‘steady state’ connection is to do with this behavioural commonality, involving pairs of cycling loops. These loops are derived from a recording of Diepenmaat playing piano; this was split into seven tape loops, inserted into physical cassettes, which were then combined in pairs. Double Landscape is the product of the various possible combinations of these pairs. The cycling process of these loops quickly establishes in each piece a steady state, one that – unlike most of the examples discussed previously – has a distinct ambient quality, the resultant musical texture resulting from the coincidental ways in which the details of each loop impinge against each other. Both the serendipity of the process and the physicality of the medium are important to Diepenmaat, as he explains:

I like coincidence, so I made the rules to let the coincidence work. Besides the combinations, due to small differences in tape length the sounds move towards/apart from each other. Also tape hiss and the wear of the tape is audible in some of the tracks. I like it when it is alive like that.

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Singular, ingenious, historic: Roland Kayn – A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound

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From a certain perspective our galaxy, the Milky Way, could be described as being ‘little’. However, with a diameter of up to 180,000 light years across, comprising as many as 400 billion stars, that perspective would be a decidedly rarefied one, viewing things, both figuratively and literally, on an astronomical scale. One gets the impression that German composer Roland Kayn looked upon sound in a similarly rarefied way. Certainly, approaching Kayn’s newly-released 2009 cycle A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound, a veritable sonic galaxy comprising 22 movements that last a little under 14 hours, necessitates getting one’s ears and mind around an altogether different kind of organisational perspective.

My relationship with Kayn’s music stretches back many years. First contact was around the turn of the millennium, while studying at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague, where Kayn had worked during its time in Utrecht, in the early 1970s, and whose name – along with that of Gottfried Michael Koenig – was spoken of not quite in hushed tones, but with a real sense of admiration, even awe. These fleeting encounters were consolidated by the marvellous CD reissue of Kayn’s Tektra, a five-hour work completed in 1982. Since then, i’ve got to know many more works, both via rips of old vinyl records that can be found online as well as some of the Reiger-records-reeks discs that were released during the late nineties and early noughties, and i’ve come to regard his output as among the most fascinating and significant of the last 70 years. He’s been featured on two of my mix tapes (#12 and #21) and a major electronic work of mine, Simulated Music, is dedicated to Kayn’s memory.

So for those who are interested to explore it, there’s a lot out there, now crowned by this sumptuous new sixteen-disc box set of A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound by the innovative Finland-based label Frozen Reeds. Yet it’s important to stress how extremely unknown Roland Kayn’s music remains, even to many of those directly involved in or otherwise knowledgeable about electronic music. Furthermore, despite the quantity of music that’s available, the amount of information and scholarly discourse about Kayn’s work is, to put it mildly, minimal (though the recently revamped Roland Kayn website has at last improved this situation a little). The reason for this is partly ignorance, of course, but perhaps as much to do with the fact that Kayn espoused a compositional approach (initially inspired by the philosopher Max Bense) that he termed ‘cybernetic’, where the composer’s involvement lay in systemically setting things up – sound possibilities, behavioural rules, etc. – but then allowing this system to go its own way. In one of his only published interviews (with Frans van Rossum), Kayn described the process and the envisaged result in this way:

The music becomes autonomous once the composer has no control over the direction it takes once he has set it in motion. […] No single composer, no matter the extent of his imagination, could conceive of this enormous variety of sounds, nor could he have conceived of the way they might be created, only the impulses which set the piece in motion can really be considered direct involvement by the composer. The result is because of purely autonomous processes.”

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Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Birmingham Repertory Theatre Studio: Peter Eötvös – The Golden Dragon

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Let’s start at the end. It would be easy to fall into the trap of mistaking Peter Eötvös‘ music theatre piece The Golden Dragon, currently touring the UK in a production by Music Theatre Wales, as a serious, even moving piece. Or, rather, not mistaking it for that (few people, one hopes, are so easily duped), but feeling compelled to regard in that way, as by the end of its 90-minute duration the piece makes very clear that that is what was always intended. In some respects, the subject matter isn’t funny: an illegal immigrant worker – referred to as ‘The Little One’ (played by Llio Evans) – in the titular Asian restaurant develops an excruciating toothache, the tooth is forcefully extracted by the chefs (Lucy Schaufer, Andrew Mackenzie Wicks, Daniel Norman and Johnny Herford), The Little One bleeds profusely and dies, and his body is then chucked into a river. But don’t misunderstand me: when i say the subject matter isn’t funny – and it really isn’t – that’s not because, by contrast, it’s serious either. Everything about the narrative – which is derived from an original play by Roland Schimmelpfennig – is ludicrous to the point of absurdity. Apropos: the work’s primary thread is embellished with various secondary ones of varying frivolity, concerning a pair of stewardesses having a meal, a granddaughter becoming pregnant to the enraged indignation of her boyfriend, and – i’m really not making this up – an ant acting as a pimp, sexually exploiting a cricket. Read more

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Altered (steady) states: Kenneth Kirschner – September 27, 2016/November 17, 2016; Markus Reuter – Falling for Ascension; Formuls – entryiseasierthantheexit_exit

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A few years ago, when writing an extensive monograph on the music of Kenneth Kirschner, i used the term ‘steady state’ to indicate the particular way in many of his works that material is deployed and juxtaposed over extended periods of time. This latter aspect, extended time, is vital: both as a compositional approach and a listening experience, it could be described as ‘macrospective’; what happens moment by moment is of secondary importance to its long-term structural dimension. However, what makes ‘steady statism’ – to coin a phrase – so engaging is the way we as listeners are pulled back and forth between focusing on the short- and long-term actions of the music, ever aware of its essential open-endedness yet nonetheless engaged by the shifting, possibly transient, ways it is manifested on the surface.

Steady statism has connections (roots even) to, among other things, 20th century US experimentalism and ambient music, two areas that have had and continue to have significant influence on contemporary music-making. In Kirschner’s case, it remains a key part of his musical language, demonstrated in several of his most recent works (all of which are available for free download from his website). In September 27, 2016, it’s articulated via widely-spaced miniature gestures – emanating from what sounds like piano, violin, vibraphone and/or glockenspiel: possibly real, probably synthetic – each one comprising a single pitch held for a short time. Not all of the instruments play in each gesture, and the length the pitches are held is not precisely exact in each instrument, but that’s by the by; the process the work undergoes is a simple, solemn statement of these micro-ideas, each one allowed to sound for only a few seconds before the music disappears back into the darkness. The silences are roughly between 20 and 40 seconds’ duration, meaning that most of September 27, 2016 is silent, yet to my mind this only gives each of these sonic motes more potency. And there are surprises too, such as when, nine minutes in, there suddenly appear to be many more string instruments present than we suspected. Fascinating and beautiful. Read more

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