electronic

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.

The only entirely electronic concert took place on Sunday afternoon, given by the not-entirely-snappily-named Estonian Electronic Music Society’s Ensemble. Vahid Jahandari‘s fixed media The Vulture was arguably the most impressive work on the programme. Inspired by photojournalist Kevin Carter’s famous troubling image of a vulture lurking near a starving girl, Jahandari’s soundscape transformed sounds from a double bass into an immersive, deeply threatening soundscape. There was something distinctly plaintive lurking within, though, heard in higher register material and fragments of melody, ghostly remnants and traces that seemed doomed in such a glowering environment, and which ultimately disappeared into their own reverb. Though the rest of the concert was somewhat more rudimentary, it had a couple of striking moments. In REMOTE ME, Serbian composer Jasna Veličković utilised two remote controls in close proximity to three electromagnetic pick-up coils to create a really fun, beat-oriented miniature study. Fellow Serb Andreja Andric‘s Pocket Electronic Symphony #1 was similarly engaging, the performer wielding a smartphone to generate what sounded like a datastream being shaped into abstract forms, textures and patterns. It was ‘symphonic’ inasmuch as its elements were often, literally, sounding together, and i honestly couldn’t help thinking of Mahler when an extended loud sequence erupted as if from nowhere. It’s worth saying that while the two performances by the entire six-member ensemble – an improvisation and a new work called Flux by ensemble member Ekke Västrik – sounded rather tentative and uncertain (from both a compositional and performative perspective), i couldn’t help admiring the simplicity of their approach, and their focus on elementary signals as the basis for music. It initially seemed dated, but was it really? Getting away from the usual experience of sound sources that have been subjected to massive amounts of treatment and processing was a tremendous relief.

i was glad to have a second opportunity to hear music by Icelandic composer Ríkharður H. Friðriksson. Though i’d been underwhelmed by his performance at the Dark Music Days in January, his fixed media piece … e mezzo, heard in the reverberant Niguliste Church on Friday evening, was excellent, flooding the space and enveloping us in rapid-fire, anonymous stuff, streams of vocalise and pitchless scrunch and noise. It was by far one of the most abstract things i heard all week, but also one of the most immediate and exhilarating. Elizabeth Anderson‘s 8-channel Solar Winds was by contrast a complete let-down – all the more so due to its inordinate quantity of accompanying tl;dr explanatory notes that turned out to mean essentially nothing in light of its vague, undifferentiated, safe and shrug-worthy material. Sweden’s Thommy Wahlström bravely sought to incorporate the church’s primary instrument in his 2017 invention for organ and EA No. 18. The organ part (performed by Ulla Krigul) was strongly redolent of Messiaen’s 1969 Méditations (both the material and the choice of registrations), though articulated such that it sounded private, as if we were being made privy to a kind of ‘inner’ music, even an ‘inadvertent’ music, made all the more vivid through Wahlström’s use of the sound of the organ compressor. As such, the acoustic and field recording elements blended entirely to form a fascinatingly liminal experience.

Among the other electroacoustic highlights was the world première of Schattenseele [The Soul of Shadow] for violin and electronics by Age Veeroos, performed by Swedish duo There Are No More Four Seasons. As with last year’s orchestral work Skein of Thought, Veeroos managed to create something provocatively intriguing from the most wispy and elusive of ideas. Considering the work’s inspiration, it was impossible not to hear its intangible substance as a manifestation of some kind of ‘soul material’, though seemingly not so much made from shadow but light. In Orison for three music box players and electronics, Canada’s Kotoka Suzuki created an interesting disjunct between the physicality of the music-making process – music boxes, strips of papers being fed into them, all closely-coordinated – and the dream-like bliss of the music. To be honest, ‘bliss’ obviously isn’t quite the right word considering Suzuki’s concern was “the voices of children during wartime”, yet while the electronics introduced more negative connotations, the ultimate emphasis of the work seemed to be more on simplicity than pain or damage. Either way, performed by Finnish group Defunenesmble, it was highly effective. At the same concert, inside Tallinn’s amazing former industrial factory now creative hub the Kultuurikatel, Welsh composer Andrew Lewis improbably found inspiration from the squeals of an escalator, which in Straatmuziek [Street Music] were translated into material for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano and electronics. Initially imitative, thereafter the music became romanticised and elaborated. It was really very lovely in an obliquely lyrical way, a line running through its centre but subject to deviations and splinterings off. The involvement of the electronics, introducing the sound of the actual escalator, was beautifully seamless, providing deep rumbles and enhancing the noise and friction in the ensemble. Brilliant.

Several of the electroacoustic works also incorporated video elements. At one end of the spectrum were Alexander Schubert‘s Star Me Kitten and Stefan PrinsGeneration Kill – offspring 1, two of the most stunningly self-indulgent, masturbatory, pretentious and stupefyingly stupid things i have ever been subjected to in a concert hall. It would be easy to point the finger at the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn’s artistic director Arash Yazdani who, based on the combination of last year’s concert of his music, plus an additional bit of doggerel heard this year, and this entire concert, seems concerned solely with the most dismally superficial and reheated forms of shock, provocation and titillation, but the buck stops with Schubert and Prins. Discreet conversations with many, many people throughout the rest of the festival testified that my response to these pieces was very far from being unique (the exact opposite, in fact), so the buck – and Yazdani for that matter – should most definitely stop.

At the other end of the spectrum, back at the Kultuurikatel, in All Play Norwegian composer Jan Martin Smørdal erased the sound of a typically outlandish performance by guitarist Daniel Meyer Grønvold (shown on a screen above the stage) and replaced it with material inspired by, and perhaps to an extent imitative of, the original. The members of Defunensemble increasingly felt fundamentally connected to Grønvold, seemingly becoming the external mouthpiece – or a kind of multi-faceted loudspeaker – for his gestures and contortions. It was entirely convincing, the ensemble seeming to tease out the inner details and filigree contained within Grønvold’s waves, sheets and slabs of noise. Later that evening, Kristine Tjøgersen‘s Mistérios do Corpo [Mysteries of the Body] for string quartet and video did to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal’s body what Andrew Lewis had done to the escalator. Based on a work by Pascoal (of the same name) performed by and on his own supine body, Tjøgersen extends his percussive and vocal sounds to the string quartet. Though perhaps a touch overlong (presumably the same could be said for Pascoal’s piece too), synchronised with the muted video the performance, given by members of the Yxus Ensemble, was compelling throughout, by turns mesmeric and downright hilarious.

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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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Free internet music: Zbigniew Karkowski

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One of my absolute favourites at the most extreme end of pretty much all musical continua is Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski. Karkowski died just over five years ago, and digesting his legacy is something i’ve been attempting to do since his passing. While there are plenty of available recordings of his work, concert performances in the UK are exceedingly rare. Graham McKenzie prominently featured his work at HCMF in 2015 and 2017, and both occasions served as a marvellous demonstration of the unique combination of intricate subtlety and enormous overload that typify Karkowski’s music. Performances of Karkowski easily rank among the most beautiful and overwhelming musical experiences i’ve ever had, and one can only hope that similarly open-minded concert curators might programme his work more often in future.

Live in Lyon is an unedited 23-minute recording of one of Karkowski’s performances. The fact that it’s unedited is significant, as it highlights from time to time the way in which Karkowski wrangled with both the technology and the sound materials themselves, and the occasional dropouts and glitches that occur in no way sound like ‘mistakes’ but only add to the overall effect of the performance. Discussing Karkowski’s music to an extent necessitates looking broadly rather than at minutiae. It tends to unfold slowly, generally favouring evolution and transformation rather than abrupt cuts and shifts, and an important factor in engaging with it is the way one gradually becomes familiar with its discrete sound elements, a familiarity that Karkowski often makes crushingly intimate. Read more

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Free internet music: The Missing Ensemble

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The Missing Ensemble was a US trio comprising Daniel De Los Santos, John Sellekaers and Mathias Delplanque, who together released two albums around 13 years ago. i forget where the recommendation to listen to their music came from all those years ago, but i do remember that one of the things that instantly drew me towards it was the cover art of their first album, Hidden Doors (2006), which featured a painting by an artist i had long admired, Ray Caesar.

Caesar’s art is beautiful and unsettling, and that’s not a bad description for Hidden Doors, a four-part journey through a soundscape that’s simultaneously stable – even, at times, borderline stagnant – yet with an omnipresent sense of threat. The first part sets up two layers of sound, one of which is positioned in the middleground, and consists of quiet, slightly glitchy burbling. The second layer involves various pitches being emphatically extruded in the foreground, sometimes piercing or juddering, other times acting in a more circumspect manner, lurking nearby. The relative strength of these two layers continually varies and wavers though extremely slowly, gently altering the depth and focus of the music. In the second and third parts there’s more of a sense of diverse elements being brought together. In the relatively brief Part II, there’s a sense of metamorphosis, of these elements combining to form something new. In less than three minutes it becomes a beautiful but strange, multi-faceted texture in which pitch and noise collide and jostle, as if it were reforming and breaking apart constantly. Read more

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The Dialogues: Lee Fraser

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i’m really happy to be able to present the next instalment in my series The Dialogues. This time i’m in conversation with UK composer Lee Fraser, whose music has been consistently blowing my mind for the last few years. The first album of his music, Dark Camber, was my best album of 2014, and his latest, Cor Unvers, released earlier this year, is just as impressive. Despite this, Fraser currently remains a relatively unknown figure, and my hope is that our Dialogue will go some way to shed more light on his music – which, both in terms of how it’s created and what it does, is seriously unlike the majority of electronic music regularly heard in most concert halls – and increase appreciation and understanding of his work. At time of writing, Fraser’s output is relatively small (a mere 10 compositions), but the imagination and power of these pieces reinforce my long-standing belief that it’s the composers who compose comparatively little – as opposed to churning out vast quantities on an endless production line – who invariably create by far the most compelling and potent music.

We got together at his home at the start of October, and i want to thank both Lee and his partner Caterina for their hospitality, and for allowing so much time for our discussion. i’m especially grateful to Lee for being prepared to talk at such length about his work; i hitherto knew almost nothing about his approach to composition, and it was fascinating to learn so much more about his musical outlook and methods. And if this Dialogue whets your appetite, his activities can be followed on his website, and to obtain one of the few remaining copies of each of his albums, Dark Camber is available via Bandcamp while Cor Unvers can be had from Discogs (best if you’re within the UK/Europe) and Ge-stell or Careful Catalog (outside Europe).

As usual, i’ve inserted numerous excerpts throughout our conversation to elucidate some of the points being discussed; a full list of these can be found below, together with the time in the audio when they occur. The Dialogue can be downloaded from the link below or streamed via Mixcloud. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Duo Gelland, Ensemble Mosaik

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Yesterday’s late evening concert at HCMF, given by Ensemble Mosaik in Bates Mill, presented the first UK performance of Enno Poppe‘s Rundfunk. There are ways in which the piece is remarkable, and ways in which it isn’t. What certainly is remarkable – and the more i’ve thought about this the more remarkable it seems – is that it took Poppe three years to compose. With a duration of 60 minutes, composed for nine performers not so much playing their keyboards as triggering events from them, Poppe’s inspiration was to take the sounds from a collection of vintage synthesisers and use these as the basis – or, to use Poppe’s word, the “atoms” – for the piece. Importantly, Poppe hasn’t chosen to use the original instruments, instead harnessing their sounds with modern technology to obviate the limitations of their dated technology (such as monophony) and to open up possibilities with different tuning systems. The considerable length of time it took Poppe to compose the work was apparently due to the enormous range of options now available to him, having brought these sounds into the 21st century. Read more

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