acousmatic

Robert Scott Thompson – Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees; William Price – Rush Hour

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A couple of noteworthy albums of electronic music by US composers have found their way to me recently. Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees by Robert Scott Thompson was released last year and pretty much tells you everything you need to know in that title. Aesthetically, the five pieces contained on this album are a melding of acousmatic and ambient, with some implied whiffs of new age, quasi-spiritual incense thrown in. On the one hand, there’s something rather dated about the timbral palette of these works – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to learn they were composed in the mid-1990s – but this isn’t necessarily an issue (indeed, of itself this could be regarded as appealing) and in any case the way the ambient outlook – which dominates overall – is fleshed out with acousmatic details makes this a negligible concern.

This ambient outlook manifests primarily at a structural level. Put simply, there’s a looseness to the structure of these pieces such that their moment-by-moment activity is more significant – or, at least, attracts more focus – than their long-term direction. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to say that many of them don’t have a clear overall sense of direction, and the extent to which this feels problematic varies from piece to piece. In the case of the title work, it is a problem; there’s a lot to enjoy – the mix of cimbalom- and bell-like pitches interspersed with soft bursts of turbulence, and particularly the way Thompson creates ‘melodies’ apparently from the noise of metallic friction – but due to its half-hour duration it ultimately comes to feel meandering and inconsequential, which for a work evidently seeking to tap into a certain meditative quality is pretty fatal. By contrast the 10-minute Magiae Naturalis really works; bringing to mind the earlier music of Adrian Moore, its ambient mindset is more potent playing out within a much shorter time-span. Read more

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New releases: Paul Dolden – Histoire d’histoire, Annette Vande Gorne – Yawar Fiesta

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Nobody – but nobody – makes music that sounds like Paul Dolden. His work typically exhibits unchecked exuberance, both his instrumental and electronic (and electroacoustic) music not merely firing on all cylinders, but with their inner workings ludicrously pimped and their processors absurdly overclocked, sounds and timbres piled on top of each other in extremis. His latest disc, Histoire d’histoire, on the Canadian acousmatic label empreintes DIGITALes, is therefore interesting as in many respects it shows considerable restraint. Much of the disc is devoted to Dolden’s five-movement work Music of Another Present Era, completed last year, in which he sets out to create a kind of deliberately inauthentic ethnographic artefact. Dolden uses our lack of knowledge about the music of ancient cultures to construct a free-wheeling flight of fancy, employing a “metaphoric use of myths” as inspiration rather than seeking to fabricate a pointless (and impossible) ersatz ‘reconstruction’. This imagined historical survey perhaps accounts in part for the demonstrable delicacy shown in this piece. Yet even from the opening moments, it’s unequivocally Dolden: microtonally unique instruments – implying the lack of a coherent, codified tuning scheme – wheeze into life as though summoning up their energy only with considerable effort, presenting a unified but ‘doddery’ demeanour. This is how first movement ‘Marsyas’ Melodies’ begins (evoking the Phrygian Satyr who was supposedly the first to create music for the flute), eventually restarting in order to find some clarity, whereupon Dolden’s characteristic dense polyphony swells up, leading to Zappa-esque florid percussion and strangely agile stodge. Flutes are featured even more in third movement ‘Entr’acte’, in which a solid chorus of them is created, so compacted that they constantly clash and jostle and scrape against each other to the point where they can hardly move. Read more

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New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin

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It’s been good to get back to the plethora of new releases that have have found their way to my door in recent weeks and months. While i don’t like to make spurious connections between disparate pieces of music, i’ve been fascinated at the way various composers explore the interplay between what we might call the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. In Morton Feldman‘s 1976 ‘Beckett trilogy’—comprising Orchestra for orchestra, Elemental Procedures for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra and Routine Investigations for six players, released together on a CD from Wergo titled Beckett Material—this interplay manifests itself, as it so often does in his work, in the implications of a tension between the aurally deliberate and coincidental. In Orchestra, for example, we hear a collection of seemingly disjointed bursts of material, brief slivers of ideas, as though Feldman had extracted a load of ‘salient points’ from a host of sources and strung them together. The result is music that constantly seems significant yet what it signifies is moot, continually reconfigured by context. In tandem with this is one’s perception of what constitutes a ‘connection’ between ideas, prompting a continual reappraisal of whether imitation and continuity are actually taking place or are imagined by-products of Feldman’s placement of materials. This extends even to something as simple as a melody; a recurring idea in all three pieces involves the irregular cycling of a small group of pitches that at first appear melodic but soon seem either arbitrary or subject to a more unpredictable type of permutation. Read more

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Electric Spring 2015

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i don’t know which felt more strange, being in Huddersfield for a music festival in February (rather than November), or the fact that, somehow, for two decades the university’s Electric Spring festival has entirely passed me by. Better late than never, i suppose, especially as this year’s festival, which took place over five days last week, was celebrating a double anniversary, both the 20 years that Electric Spring has existed as well as the 10 years during which it has been run by composers Monty Adkins and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (an era which has now ended; in future the festival will be curated by a newly-formed committee).

In addition to various daytime activities—including workshops on sound projection (using Huddersfield’s 48-speaker HISS diffusion system) and live coding (supplemented by a late evening ‘algorave’), as well as an MSP symposium and the ‘Yorkshire wiggle’ modular synthfest—Electric Spring centred on five evening concerts, featuring a headline act and opening with a short work by a different composer. The latter varied considerably in terms of both imagination and execution. Ben PottsCuboid was wilfully obtuse, bookended by bouts of tickling a kind of suspended multiple wobble-board, in between which non-sequitur bursts of shifting bandwidth came and went; it was at least mercifully short. Roberto Gerhard‘s DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile No. 2), composed in 1963, formed the soundtrack to a film by Hans Boye and Anand Sorhabal. This felt problematic in a similar way to some of the film accompaniments by Bernard Parmegiani, insofar as the visuals in no way lived up to the more experimental qualities of the music. Where the film was characterised by symmetry and anecdotal references, full of cycling images with large amounts of repetition, Gerhard’s music, encompassing an extremely wide dynamic range, seemed to follow its own predominately amorphous nose (revealingly, he described it an “aleatoric soundtrack”). The audiovisual combination caused a sharp aesthetic jarring that could only be solved by shutting one’s eyes. β Pictoris b by Olivier Pasquet referred to specifics in its programme note—”an extrasolar planet located approximately 63 light-years away”—but his music could hardly have been more generalised, a study in texture formed from the movement and juxtaposition of a body of timbrally similar particles. This was interesting in and of itself, but how Pasquet’s somewhat psychobabbular description matched his material was mystifying. The highlight of these openers for me was guitarist Diego Castro Magas’ rendition of Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, completed as far back as 2007 but only now receiving its world première. i’m not sure which aspect was more jaw-dropping, Magas’ performance—involving incredibly fast hand and finger agility, racing up and around the fingerboard, to and from the tremolo bar, while operating two foot-pedals—or the resultant music which, apart from a section toward the end, sounded about as far from guitar music as one could imagine. There was, admittedly, a surfeit of information to grapple with on this first listen, Magas positively ploughing through Cassidy’s layers of simultaneous action (one of the most frantic passages can be seen in the excerpt above), but its soundworld could not have been more urgent and inviting. i can’t wait to hear it again. And again. Read more

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An acousmatic revelation: BEAST – Pioneers of Sound, Birmingham

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Last weekend Birmingham was treated to what will surely be regarded as one of the highlights of the 2014 electronic music calendar. Presented by Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), Pioneers of Sound was a 3-day festival primarily exploring works by three of the central figures of acousmatic music, François Bayle, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Parmegiani. What made the weekend so special and so poignant was that only two of that triumvirate could be there to present their music; the absence of Parmegiani (who died last November at the age of 86) was conspicuous and keenly felt throughout the weekend. Read more

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