electroacoustic

New releases: John Wall & Mark Durgan, John Edwards/Mark Sanders/John Wall

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know how fascinated i am by the music of John Wall, and the last couple of months have seen two new releases featuring Wall alongside some his most long-standing collaborators.

In collusion with Mark Durgan is Contrapt, a 39-minute sequence of pieces culled from free improvisations the duo made over a three-year period, from 2012 to 2015. In Wall’s case, ‘culled’ would seem to be precisely the right word. i’ll say more about this when discussing the other disc, but the fact that three years’ worth of improvisations can be distilled down into not much more than half an hour says something to the way in which Wall approaches the editing process (in all of Wall’s collaborations, he is responsible for the editing of the material).

There are instances, particularly in Wall’s more recent output, when the different tracks on a disc can feel disconnected from one another, like separately-filmed scenes placed side-by-side to form a movie demarcated by jump-cuts. But not on Contrapt. Here, the seven tracks become segments of a larger, integral whole, cross-referential both specifically (in terms of material) and generally (behaviour and timbral palette). One of the most striking qualities displayed throughout the disc is physicality. Electronic music so often sounds like what it is – a stream of 0s and 1s that, whatever their lineage may be, reside within and emerge from the processing circuits of a computer. But throughout Contrapt there’s a vivid sense of objects (whether real or virtual) being wielded, handled, struck and otherwise manipulated, sometimes shape-shifting into tubular noise formations, substituting impacts with turbulence. As ever, the relationship between pitch and noise is a fascinating one. It’s easy to focus on the fragmented, filigree surfaces, or get swept along on the torrential streams of burbling grit and glitter (which i’ve previously likened to ‘alien data’) but within and around them broader sonic events take place. Underlaid low tones appear in the eponymous first segment, distant and ephemeral but present nonetheless, whereas in ‘Rapt’ pitch is used more overtly, forming lovely gliding tones that spiral spontaneously out from the main texture before being absorbed back into it. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Luis Codera Puzo – π (UK Première)

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One of the most unusual concerts at HCMF 2014 was given by Spanish ensemble CrossingLines. When i say ‘unusual’, perhaps i mean ‘impenetrable’; most of the works in the concert, by composers from Spain and Chile, were challenging to the point of wilful oddity. There was, however, one glorious exception: π by CrossingLines artistic director Luis Codera Puzo, a work for trombone, electric guitar, double bass, glockenspiel and electronics. The title is a simple metaphor, Puzo embracing π’s twin nature, being a defined, constant quantity yet irrational and therefore impossible fully to describe. For Puzo, this becomes a sonic duality, “something with a clear and unequivocal presence, which is real and concrete, and at the same time is something which cannot be pinned down, which resists any kind of complete codification”.

This becomes manifested in various ways. It’s perhaps unusual to ascribe dynamics as a primary compositional element, but Puzo has deliberately created the majority of his material such that it sounds achingly fragile, strange little soft sounds that tremulously fit together into a texture that coheres yet which often sounds barely more substantial than a piece of graphene. 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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Ana-Maria Avram – Nouvel Archae

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Back to my Lent Series, and a rather beautiful work for voice and electronics by the Romanian composer Ana-Maria Avram. Also a pianist and conductor, Avram was born and studied in Bucharest, before moving to the Sorbonne in Paris to pursue a PhD in Musical Aesthetics. Avram directs the Hyperion Ensemble with her husband Iancu Dumitrescu, and together they promote themselves as composers of ‘hyper-spectral’ music, an extension of spectralism encompassing aspects other than just the harmonic, such as timbre and dynamics, and which is particularly interested in how sound operates within the live performance environment. She works extensively with electronics, and her compositional interests can be heard to good effect in her 1998 work Nouvel Archae for “computer-assisted” voice. Read more

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Chiyoko Szlavnics – Materia/Immateria (World Première)

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Due to various compositional projects, i’ve not been able to give 5:4 much focus in the last few weeks, but now that i have some breathing space, it’s time to catch up on the more interesting recent premières and new releases.

As well as being interesting, one of the most unlikely premières took place as part of Glasgow’s marvellously leftfield Tectonics festival. Born in Canada, based in Berlin, Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ music is heard extremely rarely in the UK, and i suspect this is more than a little in part due to the nature of her mode of expression. Szlavnics begins each composition with a drawing; they tend to combine aspects that would seem at home in technical drawings—grids, charts, measurements—alongside elements that are more fluid and improvisational (examples can be seen on her website). The drawing is then ‘translated’ into sound, pitches and durations being derived from the way the drawing presents itself on the page. The result is material composed for the most part of slithering individual lines, each moving slowly, sliding up and down, sometimes hovering, over long periods of time. It makes for an aloof, bald aesthetic, sufficiently challenging that it is hardly surprising (although disappointing) that her work isn’t featured in British concerts more often. Read more

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Magical, jewel-like: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

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In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty AdkinsFragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, and the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.

The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, and connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy and imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she and Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon and exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:

the smudging and blushing of colours and motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another and allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect and are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.

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HCMF 2012: Heather Roche

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Yesterday the evening began with clarinettist Heather Roche, of whom multiple friends have spoken warmly but i had never heard play. The recital took place deep in the bowels of the University’s temple-like Creative Arts building, and comprised a selection of pieces incorporating electronics. Quite a few of them—Aaron Einbond’s Resistance, Chikako Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) and Sylvain Pohu’s l’identité—left me cold, revisiting tropes and methods that have become overused and hackneyed. i’ve written in the past about the endless parade of works where electronics pick up and play with material given off by the soloist, and while, of course, there’s scope to do genuinely interesting things with this, it’s some time since i’ve encountered any. Einbond’s Resistance felt especially moribund, assuming that the sounds of Occupy Wall Street would somehow embody his material with electrical charge, yet the result sounded merely exploitative. Read more

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Attraction & resistance: NMC Debut Discs – music by Huw Watkins, Dai Fujikura and Sam Hayden

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i don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe NMC Recordings as one of the bastions of contemporary music in the UK. For as long as i’ve been listening to new music (more than two decades now), NMC’s output has been a dependable point of continuity, and many of their releases have become both landmarks and benchmarks in the history of late 20th- and early 21st century British music. So it’s exciting to see NMC embarking on a bold new initiative: Debut Discs, a new series of 12 recordings to be released over the next four years, exploring the music of “emerging British composers”, whose music is currently under-represented on CD. Launched last month, the first three discs are devoted to the music of Dai Fujikura, Sam Hayden and Huw Watkins. They make for a stimulating and highly contrasting trio, one that resists and attracts in roughly equal measure.

Huw Watkins’ music is emphatically the latter, being by far the most accessible of the three. He opts for a nostalgic brand of music, earnest and lyrical, harking back to an earlier time. There’s nothing pastiche about what he does, and yet it seems entirely right to describe the five pieces on his disc as “neo-romantic”. Melody presides, and while Watkins affords them the opportunity for considerable variety and invention, there’s the unshakeable feeling that one’s heard all this before. The skill with which the pieces are put together can hardly be criticised—there’s not a note out of place, and Watkins’ sense of drama is strong—but the shadows of their progenitors are often so potent as to be a fatal distraction. The piano music—represented here in one of Watkins’ earlier works, the Four Spencer Pieces, played with consummate skill by the composer—manages to loosen its bonds to the past, but they’re the exception on an album that’s otherwise frustratingly over-familiar and straight-laced.

Caught betwixt the extremes of attraction and resistance is the music of Dai Fujikura (born in Osaka but resident in England since his mid-teens). The forthright independence of Fujikura’s compositional manner is striking, eschewing the styles and mannerisms of his birthplace; indeed, “Everytime I see some ‘Japanesenesses’ in my own score when I am composing, I delete them”. The five pieces on his disc comprise three substantial ensemble works and two brief solos, all very different in nature and instrumentation. What unites them is a fresh relationship with lyricism, one that allows Fujikura the possibility to go where his ideas take him, where unexpected episodes or shifts feel entirely comfortable (a quality he shares with Takemitsu, but for entirely his own reasons). The sudden bassoon cadenza in Secret Forest is an almost shockingly fragile hiatus in what is otherwise a dense and homogeneous work, dominated by huge bursts of string activity, while the latter half of Phantom Pulse somehow abruptly navigates from percussive bombast to a cloud of resonant lacework with no ill effects. But it’s the closing work, Okeanos, that shows off Fujikura’s skill best, the introduction of sho and koto contributing in no small part to its deeply hypnotic (and at times gorgeous) five movements.

Discussion of Sam Hayden’s music has hitherto been dogged by references to its apparent inaccessibility. But his music requires no apologia; it’s true that it is both powerfully demonstrative and utterly individual, but if ever there was a perfect invitation to the listener to sit up and engage with something on its own, genuinely new, terms, this is it. Everything about these four ensemble pieces (plus an electroacoustic chamber work as a bonus download) cries out its contemporary credentials, from the compositional techniques Hayden uses (brief descriptions of which double as programme notes) to the titles of the works, and there are times when it almost feels like a kind of aesthetic clipping is happening. But overall, it’s an invigorating kind of resistance, and gazing into the textures and structures Hayden creates is simultaneously disorienting and captivating. It’s not without its problems; in misguided, the intended momentum seems to short circuit under the strain of its stop-start material, and both system/error and presence/absence come across less as immersive encounters than (undeniably impressive) spectator sports. However, in the 20-minute Die Modularitäten, Hayden finds a perfect synthesis of his techniques and outlook; its polyphony is highly dramatic and deeply engaging, less a series of episodes than a large, unfolding narrative with a plethora of twists en route; and the moments when electronics lurk, barely audible, at the periphery are pure magic. Bonus work schismatics is also outstanding, the solo violin establishing a dialogue with electronics that one doesn’t just follow, but is pulled right into its epicentre.

All three releases are available on CD everywhere, and on download from the NMC shop.

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No small triumph: Carla Rees & Scott Miller – Devices and Desires

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Many’s the time in the last few years when, both in the concert hall and at home, i’ve found myself listening to yet more music for random-acoustic-instrument plus electronics—and been absolutely bored off my face. The quest for novelty seems to have ruled the electroacoustic roost for years and years, dominated by an approach to music-making that largely consists of: instrumentalist plays some material; computer (i.e. Max/MSP patch) does something with that material; instrumentalist responds to the computer; and back and forth until one of them decides to stop. Often the nature of the relationship between player and computer, as well as a sense of structural coherence and inner logic, are both fuzzy and ill-defined, and while works like this may perhaps have a skin-deep beauty that’s briefly beguiling, ephemerality remains their strongest characteristic.

It’s no small triumph, then, that the new CD from Carla Rees and Scott Miller, exploring music for flute and electronics, is so exciting and memorable. The title, Devices and Desires, is allusive—not a million miles from Ligeti’s ‘Clocks and Clouds’—evoking cool and hot impulses, a juxtaposition of measured rationality with unpredictable whim. From this melting pot of head and heart, Rees and Miller have created six pieces that each occupy a different position on the composed/improvised continuum, including “a fully composed work …, structured improvisations … and free improvisations … All of the electronic sound heard on the CD is the result of processing the sound of the flute, whether in real-time, from a sample taken earlier in the performance, or from a recording made years before we made the recording” (from Scott Miller’s programme notes). Both flute and computer fall outside convention; Miller uses the Kyma X sound design environment, while Rees uses a Kingma System C flute, an instrument designed to enable quartertones to be easily played. These instruments were brought together in “an inspired three-hour recording session”, and the result is Devices and Desires. Read more

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Julieta Szewach – Dikyrion

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The next piece in my ongoing Lent series is an unusual setting of the Lord’s Prayer by the Argentine composer Julieta Szewach, which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2008. Dikyrion uses the Aramaic version of the text, in a setting for mezzo-soprano and tape. The work was one of two selected as “outstanding” in the 11th International Rostrum of Electroacoustic Music, which took place in 2007 in Portugal (more info here). It’s easy to see why they came to that conclusion; Szewach’s piece is not only markedly different in tenor and temperament from the majority of electroacoustic music one tends to hear these days, but the soundworld she creates is both deeply immersive and very beautiful indeed. The word ‘dikyrion’ refers to a 2-branched candlestick used in Orthodox Christianity, that represents the dual nature of Jesus, both divine and mortal.

The atmosphere Szewach creates is a profound one, ethereal and mysterious. She abstracts the text, stretching and aerating it, turning it into mere shadows of words at the start, mere whispers of them towards the end; enclosing them at both points are low, solemn notes that toll out like deep gongs. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 8. Introitus

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As éileadh sguaibe reaches its conclusion, the electronics seem to catch hold of the percussion; however, a glance at the score of Nine Rivers‘ eighth piece, Introitus, reveals that it is, in fact, its own tape part overlapping the final minute of éileadh. Having been more-or-less dormant for the last 20 minutes of the cycle, electronics now start to return to the importance they had in La coupure. At this stage, the penultimate work brings with it a palpable sense of the end being in sight, although i suspect this is a natural concomitant of Nine Rivers‘ epic scale rather than anything (yet) in the music explicitly heralding or even implicitly hinting at its conclusion. Introitus is scored for 12 strings (to some extent timbrally mirroring the second work, L’ECRAN parfum) plus both live electronics and also tape. In his very lengthy programme note, Dillon characterises the relationship of those components as “a palimpsest of three superposed layers […] interdependent strata [that] function not simply to perform a coherent unity [or] a symbiosis but cite their own deconstruction. Introitus within the context of Nine Rivers may be viewed as an estuary (L. æstuare, to surge, foam as the tide), a tidal delirium opened up by the employment of computer technology”. Completed in 1990, Introitus was composed for the 65th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and was premièred in May of that year by the Ensemble Intercontemperain conducted by Peter Eötvös, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The tape and electronic parts were realised next door at IRCAM, who also commissioned the work. This time, the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre is this one:

I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands
Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:
–Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Million golden birds, O future Vigor?
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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United Bible Studies – The Gascoigne Observatory

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A few months ago, United Bible Studies made available in digital form their debut release, Stations of the Sun, Transits of the Moon, which first saw light of day as far back as 2003. Listened to beside the group’s latest album, The Gascoigne Observatory, released last month, makes for a fascinating and revealing contrast. In short, United Bible Studies have come a long way – so far, in fact, that their rough-hewn, folk origins are a distant memory, out of sight and most definitely out of mind.

Yet, while the language and mode of expression heard on The Gascoigne Observatory may bear little resemblance to earlier releases, the group’s strongest and most deeply-rooted characteristic – music emanating from improvisation – is more evident than ever before. And not just evident either; the fluid, coherent way in which the album’s single, 36-minute track unfolds is nothing short of breathtaking. Put simply, there’s not one single moment that doesn’t seem to make perfect sense with what went before; the sense of direction is impeccable, always straight and true, and this alone makes it a remarkable accomplishment. Read more

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Scandanavian sounds, part 2: Deathprod

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Deathprod – it’s a name both striking and strange, which is appropriate, as his music is both of these things too. There are obvious similarities to Biosphere – both are Norwegian; both explore large soundscapes; both create music that is immediately arresting – and yet there’s something very much more going on in Deathprod’s work. It’s even more dark, more remote, to the point of being mysterious, even ominous or desolate. But i think it’s the remoteness that is the most palpable characteristic of Deathprod’s output, neatly encapsulated in a 4-CD box set, released a few years ago. The set brings together three previously released but now hard-to-find albums – Morals and Dogma, Imaginary Songs from Tristan Da Cunha (remoteness even in the title!) and Treetop Drive – with a disc of new material, titled Reference Frequencies. There’s a fascinating low-fi approach taken in many of the tracks (some were transferred to phonograph cylinders), which somehow sit remarkably well beside more obviously electronic pieces – although, almost nothing on these CDs betrays exactly how it was created, which is quite a feat.

i first discovered his work about 4 years ago, and it still ranks as one of the most exciting, transforming encounters i’ve ever had. The most breathtaking of all is “Treetop Drive 1”, where a wide, orchestral string chord sounds again and again, pregnant and ominous, while slowly-evolving electronics splash and wail, like plangent seabirds over the foghorn of a melancholy ocean. Atop this imagined water, “Towboat” explores the same misty territory with a wider and yet more claustrophobic vision. “Burntwood” sounds like a decrepit audio tape discovered on a beach, filled with sounds that simultaneously beguile and disturb. and then, perhaps the supreme achievement of Deathprod’s sound-world, “Dead People’s Things”, an unbearingly poignant lament for something unutterably lost. All of these pieces reinvent music, expand what it can be, how it can speak. They are among the most rapturously beautiful and sad pieces one will ever hear.

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