electronic

JLIAT – J / S / A / E

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As COVID-19 gradually succeeds in bringing the entire globe to a depressing standstill, it seems as good a time as any for my Lent Series to look at some large-scale works that, from one perspective, could be said to be doing exactly the same. i’m usually very good at remembering first contact with music that makes a deep impression on me, but for the life of me i can’t recall how i first encountered the work of James Whitehead, aka JLIAT. i know it was a very long time ago, at least 15 years, and my hunch is that it was via his sequence of long-form drone pieces that constitute the earliest portion of his exceptionally eclectic output. Those last few words are vital: while drones have a place of significance, Whitehead’s musical outlook is one of the most radically and refreshingly questioning that i’ve ever come across, probing hard into the limits of how and what we define as music and even sound, particularly with regard to the way it’s represented, reproduced and reconstituted in the digital domain. To that end, his work is just as concerned, if not more so, with drone’s polar opposite, the ostensible chaos of noise, and beyond this it’s fair to regard more than a little of his work as conceptual in nature, as much about a sonic idea than a sonic artefact, though in all cases that artefact is always worth spending time with. Furthermore, while there’s a fair bit of whimsy in the JLIAT back catalogue, i’m always impressed at how deeply serious and considered it all is; it may be fun, but it’s never frivolous. Read more

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The Hafler Trio – An Answer

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Let’s turn our attention to drones. The respective roles of time and material are perhaps nowhere more controversial – and polarising – than in drone-based music. Even if you find yourself drawn into the complexities of one form of drone, another can push you away with its relative monotony. For precisely this reason, i’ve always been fascinated by drone music, and it’s an idiom that includes some of my absolute favourite compositions. i wrote about one of them some years ago as part of my ‘Contemporary Epics’ series: The Hafler Trio‘s miraculously wonderful ‘Trilogy in Three Parts‘. As well as being a work i return to very often, at the start of this year i had the pleasure of discussing it as part of an ongoing series of conversations between Andrew McKenzie and Thaddée Caillosse, exploring the Hafler Trio legacy. The episode in question focused specifically on the Trilogy, and our lengthy conversation touched on a considerable range of topics related to and arising from it, along the way revealing fascinating insights into the thought and compositional processes behind the music, plus more than a few tangential asides taking in philosophy, listening practices and love. Anyone interested in The Hafler Trio and wanting to glean more about McKenzie’s approach to his work may well find this conversation to be of interest. It’s available via the Simply Superior Bandcamp site, along with plenty of other juicy things pertinent to the entire Hafler Trio oeuvre. Dive in, and be prepared for a long swim.

Even more recently, McKenzie has dusted off and polished up his three contributions to the first series of releases by Fovea Hex. The Explanation, The Discussion and An Answer were originally released as limited edition bonus discs accompanying the EPs Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007). While many Fovea Hex releases have included accompanying remixes of their music, the three Hafler Trio pieces are rather more ambitious, best regarded as self-contained electronic works into which fragments and morsels of Fovea Hex material have been to a greater or lesser degree folded, embedded and woven. A decade and a half on from their original release, McKenzie has released a standalone edition of these pieces under a new, typically Haflerian, collective title: This is Our Problem: What Will Our Joy Be Then?. Read more

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Chubby Wolf – The Last Voices

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The next piece i’m exploring in this year’s Lent Series is The Last Voices by Danielle Baquet-Long, who released her solo work under the name Chubby Wolf. At 84 minutes long, it’s by far her longest piece, and the more i’ve spent time with it over the years, the more i’ve become convinced that it’s one of her best. It’s one of a number of works that her husband Will Long has made available since her death in 2009, each of which has testified further to the depth, scope and subtlety of Baquet-Long’s skill and talent. Her loss remains a profound one.

The way The Last Voices harnesses time is fascinating. It’s tempting to ponder whether the piece ultimately does anything or goes anywhere – but that immediately prompts a necessary follow-up consideration: how do we define ‘doing’ or ‘going’? The opening minutes of the piece act as something of a paradigm for everything that follows. It’s like listening to a half-focused or blurred ‘tonic’ chord gently oscillating on its axis. As such it sounds resolved yet not exactly final; there’s a prevailing impression that there’s more to come, though equally a sense that if the music were to stop right now it would sound completely natural and make perfect sense. As time passes, it consolidates the feeling that something fundamental – in both musical and non-musical senses – is omnipresent, yet Baquet-Long has allowed considerable scope for the music to move and roam, to explore and grow, never sounding constricted. This movement is generally, though very loosely, articulated in what could be thought of as extended exhalations, punctuated with brief gathering points to draw breath that also allow a moment or two for the preceding resonance (sonic and internal) to be savoured. Read more

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Kenneth Kirschner – January 1, 2019

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It’s the first day of Lent, and also therefore the start of this year’s 5:4 Lent Series. Three years ago my focus was on miniature works, and for 2020 i’m going in the opposite direction, exploring compositions that occupy larger-scale durations. However, this is not simply about pieces that are ‘epic’ (something i’ve examined before) but more about the way time is used (by the composer) and perceived (by the listener). For that reason, in general i’m not going to be looking at sectional works or cycles, which are lengthy simply because they’re made up of numerous individual component parts, or operas, which are invariably longer due to the fact that it takes a while to tell a decent narrative. That being said, there will be exceptions to both of those exclusions.

i’m beginning this year’s Lent Series with a recent work by a composer who has made me think more about time than anyone else: Kenneth Kirschner. Kirschner’s work has intrigued and fascinated me for many years. On the one hand, in many respects i feel i know it well; i’ve spent time with everything he’s made available over the last couple of decades – which, depending how you classify what counts as a ‘composition’, amounts to as many as 185 pieces – and have written about his music on numerous occasions, most extensively in the 2014 book Imperfect Forms: The Music of Kenneth Kirschner (available as a free PDF download). It was Kirschner’s work that inspired and helped shape my thinking about what i ultimately called the ‘steady state’, the structural concept in which short-term change and long-term stasis combine to create a never-/ever-changing musical tapestry that’s always the same, yet always new. That description could almost be said to apply to Kirschner’s output itself; many of his compositions evoke, allude to or at least resemble many of his other compositions: always the same, yet always new. Yet for all the knowledge and familiarity with it, Kirschner’s music keeps you on your toes, regularly coming as a surprise. Always the same, always new. Read more

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Jennifer Walshe – A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance

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There are times, believe it or not dear reader, when i honestly wonder if i’m starting to get a little bit jaded. Listening can feel like a chore, and the endless parade of the novelty and the newfangled can blur into a torrent of ‘musica generica’ that becomes (at best) boring and (at worst) suffocating. Enter Jennifer Walshe. If there’s one artist whose work is always guaranteed to beguile, intrigue and fascinate, it’s Walshe. Above all, she is endlessly refreshing, presenting unexpected ideas in unexpected ways that are often as hilarious to experience as they are engrossing and confusing.

To say her latest release is no exception is to put it very mildly indeed. It’s essentially a collision between acoustic, in the form of Walshe’s voice, and electronic, in the form of machine learning duo Dadabots. The latter set to work training their neural network on recordings of Walshe singing through centuries’ worth of music history. The first remarkable product of this unique collaboration is A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance, 40 minutes of sonic disjecta membra that Douglas Adams might have described as being almost, but not quite, entirely unlike vocal music.

Anyone with a passing understanding of machine learning from the perspective of music will perhaps know what to expect here. Machine? – check; learning? – hmm, not so much. The extent to which it’s obvious in these 17 tracks that their origins lie in Jennifer Walshe’s vocal cords varies extremely widely. Not that that matters, of course; what’s more important here isn’t the fidelity of the process but the evolution of the process, the ongoing strenuous effort being made to attempt to parse, understand and reproduce – and then beholding the startlingly marvellous results in all of their discombobulating ineptitude. Read more

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Roland Kayn – Scanning

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There aren’t many new releases that require you to free up huge chunks of time in your schedule, but then Roland Kayn isn’t like many composers. Two years ago, 14 hours were required to explore the vast expanse of his A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, which i ended up doing in a couple of 8-hour shifts across two days. The latest release of Kayn’s music, Scanning, lasts a mere 10 hours that, in contrast, seemed to pass with surprising briskness.

This wasn’t due simply to it being significantly shorter than its predecessor; i think it’s primarily to do with the nature of the music – particularly the kinds of materials Kayn uses and, most importantly, the way that they’re shaped, articulated and structured. It’s feasible to think of many of the 24 movements of Scanning as examples of what i’ve previously called ‘meta-ambient’, where a generalised steady state reigns over the long-term behaviour of the music, leading to in essence an equilibrium, within which a constant evolution takes place, sometimes involving abrupt shifts or alterations in its details. Long-form structural designs are of course nothing new in Kayn’s music, yet the specific way Scanning behaves sets it apart, i think, not only from A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, but from a great deal of his previously-released output. When writing about A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound a couple of years ago, i commented on its generative, hands-off aspect, and on that occasion cited Autechre as a point of reference. Scanning also possesses this hands-off aspect, but a more fitting aesthetic reference this time might be the music of Andrew McKenzie’s The Hafler Trio project, particularly (but not exclusively) his last major releases from around 2003–2005. This is down to the way that pretty much every part of Scanning plays with and explores the relationship between pitch and noise. In some respects – and this is perhaps the only strong connection to A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound – its 24 movements are almost variations on this theme. Read more

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Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden III

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It all began with a trilogy. This was back in 2005 when, over the course of three successive years, Irish musical entity Fovea Hex (singer Clodagh Simonds, together with a changing roster of collaborators) put out the trio of EPs – Bloom, Huge and Allure – that would become collectively known as Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. An album in all but name, each part of the trilogy was accompanied by an additional disc where the music had been extensively remixed by The Hafler Trio. Following this there was a four-year wait until their only actual album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, was released in 2011, again with an accompanying disc of remixes (titled Three Beams) by Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski. After which a further five years would pass before their most recent, even more slow-to-emerge trilogy The Salt Garden, the third and final part of which has recently – finally! – been released.

It’s worth taking a moment just to reflect on two significant aspects of all this. First is the group’s disinterest (for the most part) in more conventional contemporary release practices. i described Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent as an album in all but name, yet at a risk of contradicting myself the fact is that it wasn’t, and isn’t, an album, but – to borrow a phrase from The Hafler Trio – a ‘trilogy in three parts’. There’s something rather old-school about it, not unlike like the practice during the 1990s in which, due to the popularity of the relatively new CD medium, instead of releasing bog standard singles, artists would instead put out dual maxi-singles, one disc of which typically featured three or four songs, the other disc a collection of remixes. Taken together, the two discs would often last as long (if not longer) than an album, and being able to spend time with a cluster of songs that were then reworked was always an enormously enjoyable listening experience. Read more

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Gunnar Geisse – The Wannsee Recordings

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The Wannsee Recordings is a double album by German composer and improviser Gunnar Geisse, released on the NEOS label earlier this year. In some ways, that sentence is about as certain as i can be about the album because, to be honest, i was as impressed by it as i was flummoxed by it. Usually, when an album ramps up its flummox factor it doesn’t take too long for it to become unengaging and ultimately boring, but in the case of The Wannsee Recordings, despite the fact that i regularly found myself staring at the speakers in a certain amount of disbelief, something about it kept me hooked for its complete 150-minute duration.

Let’s back up a bit: the album is essentially an anthology of 34 individual improvisations, ranging in length from 58 seconds to well over 13 minutes, performed by Geisse using a special laptop guitar rigged up to a MIDI controller and a laptop enabling the instrument to transform into a host of other instruments and sounds. Sometimes the guitar stays fairly close to its own identity, but in most cases it would be impossible to tell that what you’re hearing is emanating from a guitar. Opening track ‘VII.4 [10100111_A7_⋆167]’, for example, is described as being for “electric guitar, brass, percussion, timpani and celesta’, whereas one of the most ambitious, ‘II.4+V.4 [100100+1100111_24+67_⋆36+⋆103]’ comprises “electric guitar, saxophone, drum set, woodwinds, strings, piano, choir, noises and trombone”. It’s not stretching a point to describe these improvisations as encompassing orchestral forces and scope. Read more

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HCMF 2019 (Part 1)

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Last week i was able to catch a couple of days of the shenanigans going on at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It was strange not to be doing my usual thing of setting up camp for the whole shebang, but quite apart from it being better than nothing, experiencing a festival in microcosm like this is somewhat revealing. More than perhaps most music festivals, going to HCMF involves becoming a prospector, panning for gold in its welter of content. Personally, i’ve tended to find the nuggets of gold to be relatively few and far between, but when you find them it’s usually a pretty overwhelming experience, easily among the most memorable i’ve ever had. This proved to be the case again this year: some was worthless, some looked like gold but on closer inspection was just superficially shiny – and every now and then the festival really hit the jackpot.

Apropos: Termite Territory, by composer-in-residence Hanna Hartman, receiving its first UK performance on Thursday afternoon by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. It looked at first glance to be a not particularly promising mucking around with close-miced bits of corrugated cardboard. However, its highly episodic structure – each episode involving a different approach to the way the cardboard was wielded by the five players – turned out to be deeply engrossing. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 2)

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Being the host nation, music from Norway was especially well-represented at this year’s Nordic Music Days in Bodø. Harnessing the large and impressive organ of Bodø Cathedral, Trond Kverno‘s Triptychon 2 was one of the fieriest things i heard at the festival. We tend to think of toccatas as fast-flowing, though the ones that appeared here were often crushingly strong, to the point that it sounded as if their notes were audibly fusing into dense clusters. Its more ruminative middle movement only made the powerful outer sections sound more assertive, the final movement managing to turn a pedal point into an aggressive surge before letting high notes hang while the pedals became pushy in the depths. And just when it seemed the work couldn’t get any more forceful, organist Gro Bergrabb’s rendition of the final climax was so crashing it practically threatened the integrity of the building. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 1)

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Founded in 1888, the annual Nordic Music Days is one of the oldest contemporary music festivals in the world. It’s a peripatetic festival, moving from place to place each year, and for 2019 – surprisingly, for the first time – it moved north of the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø (‘boo-duh’) in the north of Norway. As its name suggests, the festival is an opportunity for composers and performers from throughout the Nordic region to meet, collaborate and showcase to the wider world the range and diversity of their music-making.

The country that unfortunately came off worst this year – with disappointing consistency – was Denmark. Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard took no fewer than 50 triangles for his Triangular Mass – and then gave them little more than a continual, barely-changing tremolando for ten minutes. That was boring enough, but the fact that the work was conceived to be performable by any group of people, irrespective of musical training, only made such basic material seem not merely deficient but patronising; non-musicians are capable of a great deal more than just that. Loïc Destremau‘s string quartet Spoken Music had more going for it, but it was one of a number of pieces at NMD 2019 that became so interested in either technical or extra-musical elements that their actual musical interest was greatly reduced. In this case, while Destremau’s exploration of how speech can modulate conventionally-performed materials by the quartet was an interesting idea, the actual resulting music was extremely dull. Read more

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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. Read more

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Zbigniew Karkowski – Encumbrance

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In recent years, one of the most vividly memorable Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals was 2017, when the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski was prominently featured. Huddersfield is in fact the only place in the UK that i’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Karkowski’s music performed live, which suggests everywhere else is either too ignorant or – more likely – too timid to consider programming it. Karkowski’s music is not necessarily intimidating, though his radical, implacable embracing of extremes perhaps makes his music more likely than most to send certain portions of the audience scrambling for the exit.

One of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski for choir and electronics. The piece seriously bowled me over, so i was excited to learn that a CD of Encumbrance has recently been issued on the Polish label Bôłt. Better still, the disc includes two performances of the work, which may seem peculiar but turns out to be extremely revealing about which aspects of the music are fixed and which are variable. The performances, which date from 2014 and 2016, are again given by the Gęba Vocal Ensemble, with the electronics realised by Wolfram in the earlier recording and Constantin Popp in the latter. Read more

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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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Clemens von Reusner – Electroacoustic Works

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In contemporary electronic music it can be hard to find a good balance between a robust sense of purpose while retaining the possibility of spontaneity. To an extent, the sculpted nature of fixed media works tacitly tends to enforce the former over the latter such that, like the dialogue in most movies, everything we hear is not merely interesting or relevant in the moment but necessary to the larger-scale direction of the work’s inner narrative. With that in mind, it’s been good to spend time with an anthology of electronic music by German composer Clemens von Reusner, where precisely this kind of balance between order and whim is demonstrated.

Aside from the fact they were all composed within the last decade, if the seven works on the disc have something fundamental in common it’s to be found in Reusner’s general attitude with regard to the handling of his materials. The title of one of the pieces, Sphären der Untätigkeit (‘Spheres of Inactivity’), might do well as a description of this attitude. At pretty much no point is there a sense that Reusner is pushing things on or overtly marshalling them toward a certain end or outcome. Instead, sounds – both on their own and as part of larger textures – are given time to establish themselves, allowing us to get to know them, before they change and/or develop into something new. What that means is that the impression of structure in these pieces is just that, an impression, one that ostensibly arises more from the inclination and interaction of each work’s elements than from an underlying scheme within which they are designed to conform and fit. 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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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

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This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released. Read more

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Borealis 2019 (Part 2)

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Nearly but not quite everything that took place at this year’s Borealis festival was light years away from the world of conventional concert performances. The most notable exception to this was the first event i attended, at the Nykirken on Friday evening, given by Sjøforsvarets musikkorps, the Norwegian Naval Forces Band, conducted by Ingar Bergby. They presented three works, two by Norwegian composers and the other by British composer James Clapperton. Written in 2012, Clapperton’s Doroga Zhizni was by far the most overtly earnest of the three pieces. A saxophone concerto written as a commemoration of the Siege of Leningrad, it was difficult to know to what extent this considerable layer of baggage helped or hindered the work. Which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Though its musical language was staunchly conservative, often channelling post-minimalistic prettiness, the interplay between soloist René Wilk (for whom the work was written) and the band was at times highly dramatic. This was the piece at its best; when Clapperton sought to tap into the emotional heft of his subject the music became a generic kind of insipid ‘In memoriam lite’, pseudo-emotive blather that did its inspiration neither any favours nor sufficient justice. It would perhaps have been best to hear the piece without any knowledge of its supposed backstory; as it was, reconciling what we heard with Clapperton’s aspirations proved all but impossible.

It was also quite difficult to square the notes for Therese B. Ulvo‘s Excavation – which spoke about digging away at the brilliance and beauty of the wind band, causing it to be “stripped down to its bones”, and exploring what remained – with the music itself, but in practice it hardly mattered. The piece threw together various opposites, initially managing to sound simultaneously refined and primitive (distantly evoking something of Stravinsky) and putting equal emphasis on melody and noise. In addition to this, while the band as a whole were generally in consensus about their activities and behaviour, the harmonic nature of the music floated completely freely. Only later did it more demonstratively draw nearer to the implications of its title, ideas becoming ‘stuck’ and being explored at length, almost as if they were being worn down and eroded. The weirdly fanfaric way Excavation developed a fin de siècle quality later on was fascinating and the latter half of the piece in particular was deeply engrossing, ultimately unleashing walls of noise so enormous they practically blew themselves out. Read more

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John Wall & Alex Rodgers – Soar

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Oh mate give this shit a rest
Why should you be allowed to think your dream means anything?

These words of poet Alex Rodgers come towards the end of ‘County Moods (part 1)’, the opening piece on Soar, his latest collaboration with musician John Wall. The question these words pose mirrors part of my own thinking while listening to the album. Interestingly, though, not because of anything specific that i was hearing.

Released by Entr’acte a few weeks back, it’s the first time that one of the duo’s albums has been issued with Rodgers’ texts included, here compiled in an accompanying book. This is interesting in and of itself, but it also serves as something of a challenge to several aspects of how i’d perceived their previous output. Alex Rodgers is one of the most enigmatic poetic voices i’ve encountered. On the one hand, his delivery tends to adhere to the same general tone, register and dynamic, yet he’s nonetheless very far from being impassive. On the contrary, he’s often disarmingly akin to a kind of East End manifestation of Viz comic’s gentleman thug Raffles, filling the air with mumbling, possibly-(probably-)inebriated purple prose before threatening to punch your teeth down your throat. Yet just as important is the nature of the words spilling out of his mouth, which veer between stream-of-consciousness and deeply-considered proclamation, thereby encompassing nonsense and profundity, embracing eloquence and profanity. i confess – and, in light of Soar, it does feel like a confession – that there have been many times i’ve felt that it’s not what Rodgers is saying that’s most significant but the way that he’s saying it: a periphrastic paradox melding the coherent and the incomprehensible – or to return to that opening quotation/question, a dream that, beyond its ability to provoke, bewilder and enchant, may well not mean anything.

Yet with Soar that possibility is emphatically challenged. By being published in this way, Rodgers’ elusive texts have been rendered tangible, made more concrete. Beyond this, considering that Rodgers’ words have always preceded Wall’s music – which responds to and essentially ‘clothes’ the words in a supportive, sympathetic soundworld – and, furthermore, that these texts are not always represented verbatim in the finished pieces (certain lines being elided or missing) has the effect of lending the printed texts the quality of an imprimatur, elevating their significance. At least, that’s one way of looking at it; another would be to regard the printed texts as the springboard for not only Wall’s but also Rodgers’ creative spontaneity, never so much reciting his own words as riffing off them, messing around further with their already inscrutable substance, structure and syntax. Read more

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