acousmatic

relief – The Gloaming

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An album that i’ve been returning to again and again in recent months is The Gloaming, the debut release from relief, nom de guerre of composer Chris Berkes. As debuts go – a 42-minute work cast in four broad movements – it’s certainly impressive. A title like The Gloaming, with its connotations of fading crepuscular light and evening weariness, possibly suggests a music inclined towards shadow, its details vague, half-lost in encroaching darkness; the fact that the second part is titled ‘Tenebrae’ only reinforces such an assumption. Yet, interestingly, The Gloaming turns out to be nothing like that at all.

Taken as a whole, the piece is caught between veracity and artifice, in which field recordings make their presence felt in the midst of heavily processed and sculpted sounds. As such, it makes sense to think of The Gloaming as an acousmatic work, setting out to immerse the listener in a vivid metareality, the parameters and landscapes of which are continually shifting and reforming. That being said, one of the great strengths of the work is the relative limitation of its range of materials, which helps to give a greater sense of definition to its soundworld. It’s both earthy – the third part is even titled ‘Vom Grund’ (from the ground) – and airborne, the product of impacted industrial dirt and floating effervescence, manifesting in close juxtapositions of sharply contrasting materials: the clarity of pitch and clouds of noise; hard accented attacks and soft-edged sustained tones; sounds that are immovable and immaterial.

But it’s that most basic contrast i mentioned, between veracity and artifice, the tangible and the abstract, that’s what makes The Gloaming as riveting as it is. It leads to yet another contrast, creating a continual sense of dramatic tension while at the same time feeling entirely organic and necessary. Nothing sounds predictable, yet nothing sounds arbitrary. A kind of stable disorientation. This paradox is achieved in part due to the time Berkes gives to letting the music progress. On the one hand, there’s hardly a moment in the piece that seems static – yet it doesn’t rush: sounds evolve, impose, transform, mutate, transition, yield. In the process, The Gloaming‘s world spans an extremely wide aesthetic extent, embracing vast, filigree agglomerations that at times come close to total saturation; floating wisps of sonic fragrance drifting in space; delicate shimmerations made tense by deep, resonant poundings; and recurring traces of the human voice, kept tantalisingly slightly beyond the cusp of recognition. Often, the music is bifurcated, split into discrete layers or strata that don’t simply force disjunct elements to coexist but provide a potent sense of perspective. And above all, the music is always tactile – among the most pseudo-physical acousmatic music i’ve encountered – so palpable you feel you could just reach out and touch, stroke and caress the contours of its warm, bristling textural surfaces.

It all makes for a captivatingly beautiful listening experience, enveloping the listener in a world that seems like an extension of our own, yet one filled with fantastically transfigured shapes and forms. Every single one of the many times i’ve spent inside The Gloaming, as soon as it’s finished i absolutely can’t wait to go back again.

The Gloaming is released on limited edition vinyl and digital download, both available from the relief Bandcamp site.


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Juhani Silvola – Post-biological wildlife

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We might call it “conjectural anthropology”. What i’m referring to here is music (or any art, for that matter) that seeks to fabricate and/or otherwise be inspired by fictitious notions of organic life and activity. We find examples of this in, among other places, the strange electronic languages being uttered in the two volumes of Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of Notional Species, in the wildly theatrical simulated-ethnographic rituals and dances of Paul Dolden’s Histoires d’histoire, and in the dual attempt to question and (re)invent an ancient magic in Gabriel Dharmoo’s Futile Spells. While none of these works seeks to effect real plausibility – focusing instead on the inherent joy arising from playing fast and loose with conceits of pseudo-reality – it’s surprising how effective and authentic they can feel, and as a consequence, how much we want them to be real. Similar feelings arise when listening to Post-biological wildlife, the latest album from Norwegian composer Juhani Silvola.

Rather than conceptualising a long-distant past, Silvola’s outlook is staunchly forward, looking ahead to a futuristic vision that may or may not involve people. Or, at least, ‘people’ as we currently understand the term: the “post-biology” at play here is evidently a convoluted amalgam of human, animal and machine elements. Opening track ‘Ritualrytmikk’ (itself a lexicological amalgam) brings together an assortment of percussive taps and beats amidst electronic blips and bleeps such that the distinction between them, though always evident, seems irrelevant. Occasionally surrounded by deep gongs and high chimes, the ritual aspect of the music is articulated with ice-cold simplicity and clarity, forming a nice counterpoint to the capricious irregularity of its rhythmic patterns. More relaxed but connected in parallel, ’20th Century Meditation’ turns metric regularity into a steady state textural foundation over which gentle plinky-plonky melodic fragments meander. As such, it evokes the progenitors of ambient music (hinted at in both parts of its title, “20th Century” and “Meditation”) while sounding unequivocally new. The title track is equally committed to just a single idea, setting up a habitat within which ersatz bird- and insect-sounds proliferate, joined later by gusts generated by an artificial storm. Read more

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Forum Wallis 2019 (Part 1)

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It’s impossible to be aware of everything that’s going on in new music. For me, that fact is usually associated with new CD releases, but i’ve come to realise it’s just as true for concerts and festivals. Apropos: Forum Wallis, a five-day festival of contemporary music that takes place annually in the Swiss mountains. i suspect i’m not the only person on whose radar Forum Wallis has never properly registered, but having recently returned from my first experience of the festival, it clearly deserves to be not only more widely-known but loudly celebrated, and take its place among the annual round of new music festivals that, if at all possible, are not to be missed.

Quite apart from its musical objectives, you could hardly ask for a more stunning location to experience new music. Forum Wallis takes place in the small town of Leuk, situated in the south-west of Switzerland on the banks of the river Rhône, surrounded on each side of the valley by soaring Alpine peaks. Having begun in 2006, the festival has evolved under the leadership of composer-performer Javier Hagen such that its focus is divided between instrumental and electronic music, both of which are explored in the old-meets-new architectural space that is Schloss Leuk, the town’s wonderfully restored castle. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 1)

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There’s something absolutely right about the bringing together of Norway’s Only Connect – a festival that, as its name implies, encourages one to question (inter)connections between ostensibly disparate musics – with Tectonics, Ilan Volkov’s peripatetic festival the name of which evokes fundamental, underlying bedrocks that continually meet, connect and rupture. Taking place last week in the city of Stavanger, in the south-west of Norway, it’s only the second time the two festivals have conjoined, and the results were often appropriately volatile. That being said, one of the things that struck me powerfully during the festival – and this echoes my experience of Only Connect last year – was its almost complete lack of ostentation. The impacts it made were frequent and deep, but there was rarely an overt sense that this is what was actively being sought by the composers and performers. i’ve long felt that a certain kind of nonchalance – by which i mean the avoidance (or at least, the disguising) of obvious signs of audience direction or manipulation – is essential to the most powerful musical experiences, and at Only Connect that was its prevailing character, and i’ve no doubt this was a major factor in making those impacts as deep as they were. Read more

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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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