Cut and Splice 2005: John Cage, Yasunao Tone, Signal (Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender)

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Returning to the archives, here’s an eclectic variety of electronic music from the 2005 Cut and Splice Festival in London, beginning with the archetypal cut and splice work, John Cage‘s Williams Mix. The piece sounds as wonderfully kaleidoscopic as ever, its fast-edit approach causing much the same effect as 4’33”, rendering no sound incongruous, and its all-too-brief duration still surprisingly modern after more than 50 years. In Paramedia-Centripetal by Japanese composer Yasunao Tone, the music emanates from Tone’s ‘performance’ on a graphics tablet of a number of calligraphic symbols, and i suspect this was more engaging to witness than it is merely to listen to; bereft of visuals, the material itches frenetically throughout, with occasional similarities to the sharp juxtapositions of Cage’s piece (and towards the end, to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango), but ever with the sense that something important was missing. Indeed, after a while, the comparative similarity of the material coupled to its relatively narrow pitch range (deep bass sounds are virtually non-existent), and lengthy duration (almost half an hour) lend the piece a dull, even irritating quality.

The festival included a focus on three composers associated with the German Raster-Noton label: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Olaf Bender (aka Byetone). An interview with Frank Bretschneider is illuminating, particularly when he speaks of the issues he and the related composers experienced when first presenting their music, and how it relates to electronic, contemporary and other traditions. Bretschneider comments on the disinterest shown by record labels towards their work, as it didn’t (he says) correspond to existing traditions in contemporary music; although why no-one felt the connection to minimalism is beyond me. With its emphasis on rhythm, and without depending on tired quasi-‘tonal’ harmonic ideas, it’s the kind of minimalism i can engage with; it’s “in your face”, confronting the listener with unavoidable glitches, blips and poundings, and all the better for it. Bretschneider’s untitled piece that follows is a superb example of this, exciting and irresistible, at times seeming to evoke the complexity of African drumming patterns. Read more

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Dark, scintillating gems: Johnny Hollow – Dirty Hands

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Mmelancholy, theatricality and an understated gothic darkness pervade the second and most recent album by Johnny Hollow, Dirty Hands, released last year. And it’s just as well that these qualities are understated; the authentic, original traits of the 1980s indie ‘goth’ have become so hideously contorted into the present-day big label ’emo’ fake that bands seeking to allude to these dark characteristics do well to keep them in check. But there’s not the barest hint of inauthenticity in Johnny Hollow’s output, which begs the question of why this Canadian group is not more well-known. Dirty Hands ended up 19th on my top 40 releases of 2008, and rightly so; it’s a splendid creation, blending instrumental sounds (piano, strings) and electronics into the indie-goth mix, resulting in a music with impressively broad scope. Read more

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Update: Steven Wilson – Insurgentes

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Further to my recent post about Steven Wilson‘s fantastic album Insurgentes, there have been developments. For those fancying themselves as a budding remixer, Wilson has made available material from the opening track, “Abandoner”; go here for more info and the audio stems—there’s also a very nice, mellow remix on there by Engineers, well worth checking out.

Of rather more interest, though, is that there’s finally an alternative for those who missed out on the initial deluxe 2-CD edition, limited to 3,000 copies. Of course, if you really want to, it’s possible to find copies on eBay, but you’ll end up paying in the region of £150-200 for it. On the other hand, the Japanese edition has recently been released, on an HQ CD, with a 40-page booklet, and—crucially—the second CD containing the additional tracks not available elsewhere. There don’t appear to be many copies floating around yet, but prices are much more reasonable, around £40-50. For two such auctions, simply look for ‘Insurgentes’ on Ebay or just go here or here, or if you want to save even more money (but may have to wait longer), take your chances with cdJapan here.

And finally, an HD version of the new “Harmony Korine” video can be seen here.

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“a hush, almost sacred”: Steve Peters – Here-ings

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As will have been obvious from my two “Best of” posts at the end of last year (here and here), i’m very taken with the work of sound artist Steve Peters. i’ve been spending a lot of time with his work of late, and one release has particularly impressed me in all sorts of ways. Peters is clearly a composer with both an acutely sensitive ear as well as an innate sensibility to the contexts in which sound occurs; nowhere is this better illustrated than in Here-ings.

Subtitled ‘a sonic geohistory’, Here-ings takes the relatively unusual form of a book and CD, the former illuminating the contents of the latter through a combination of prose and poetry (also by Peters), plus photographs contributed by Margot Geist. Essentially, the project consisted of Steve Peters spending a great deal of time at a site in New Mexico called The Land, set aside for site-specific art that engages with the environment surrounding it. Feeling that he would prefer to let the place ‘speak for itself’ rather than asserting his own creative impulse, over the course of a year, Peters made a series of hour-long field recordings at The Land, each occupying a different hour of the day, totalling 24 hours of material. Furthermore, each hour was recorded at a different location within The Land, so his recordings succinctly capture the entirety of The Land, throughout a year, conflated into a day’s worth of sound. Read more

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Like a ton of feathers: Morten Riis – Digital Sound Drawings

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Many moons ago, i wrote a retrospective of the work of Ryoji Ikeda, composer of some the finest raw digital music yet created. It’s an unfortunate corollary that Ikeda, like all great innovators, has a sizeable cluster of imitators (‘flattery’ be damned), many of whom form part of the now woefully tautological output from the once interesting Raster-Noton label. But something quite new appeared today, from the Crónica netlabel that i’ve praised so highly in the past. Out today is the fifth of their ‘Unlimited Releases’ series: Digital Sound Drawings by the Danish composer Morten Riis. The short programme note speaks of these six compositions being “composed through the drawing of images and their direct conversion into sound”, which brings to mind the well-known spectral imagery occasionally used by, among others, Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares and Plaid (about which more can be read here). Riis’ compositions are quite different, however, more akin to ‘sculptures’ than anything else, something that becomes strikingly apparent when the music is listened to using audio editing software, as recommended by the composer. i found this a fascinating way to listen, proving revelatory about the sound structures Riss has created. Read more

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An absolute must-have: Steven Wilson – Insurgentes

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It may only be two-thirds of the way through January, but already i’m fairly sure that i’ve heard the album that’ll be my best of the year: Steven Wilson‘s Insurgentes. Wilson is the musician behind, among other acts, Porcupine Tree and Bass Communion, and Insurgentes—the first album he has released under his own name—brings together the best elements of those projects and much else besides. Strictly speaking, it was released last year, in a limited edition of 3,000 copies; the retail version was to have been released at the end of February this year, but appears to have been pushed back to March. However, in true Trent Reznor style, if you pre-order, you’re immediately given a link to download the entire album in mp3 format (256Kbps) to tide you over. Read more

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In Memoriam Michael Tippett

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Today is the anniversary of the death of Sir Michael Tippett, and last week was the anniversary of his birth. To mark both occasions, here’s a collection of his music from a service of Choral Evensong that dates back to St Peter’s Day 2005, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It’s a recording i recently discovered in my archives, on a video cassette, so the quality doesn’t quite live up to the digital recordings i make today; all the same, it’s a nice clear reproduction, taken from digital radio.

Almost all the music in the service was by Tippett, beginning with his neo-renaissance motet Plebs angelica, mellifluous and texturally very thick throughout. The canticles are Tippett’s setting for St John’s College (composed in 1961 to mark the 450th anniversary of the founding of the college); the Magnificat is brilliantly virile, startlingly muscular from the outset, and the Nunc dimittis is no less interesting for its relative softness, individual voices sounding stark, even vulnerable against a gentle choral backdrop, occasionally punctuated by the organ, contributing strange singular clusters. Instead of a single anthem, the choir performed no fewer than all five of Tippett’s Negro Spirituals from ‘A Child of our Time’. They’re given a thoroughly spirited performance (no pun intended), the singers quite clearly relishing the material. “Steal Away” (in my opinion the best of the five) is performed with great delicacy, and the baritone soloist is superb; and “Go down, Moses”—which, more than the others, tends to sound significantly weaker than its original orchestral version—is strikingly brought to life here, the final bars given a suitably authoritative tone. To finish, the voluntary was Tippett’s meandering, rather mundane Preludio al Vespro di Monteverdi. Read more

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