electronic

New CD out today – Night Liminal

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i’m delighted to announce that today sees the release of my latest CD, Night Liminal. Here’s a bit of blurb from the spiel:

For the last four years, my electronic music has been to a large extent founded upon noise. Whether sculpting large, primordial shapes from it (Triptych, May/July 2009), pitting it against pitched material (the Ceiling stared at me but i beheld only the Stars) or allowing it to do its own thing (Simulated Music), noise has been the principal vehicle for my electronic music. Even in my most gentle work (The Stuff of Memories), noise has been present, colouring and caking the music in sonic detritus.

Night Liminal is different. Lasting a little under forty minutes, the work is a stark contrast to these intense noisescapes, signalling both a return to and a reclamation of my æsthetic roots, embracing the quietude of ambient music. For the first time, the material is gentle, soft-edged and peaceful—even relaxing. That, at least, is its first impression; but the work’s inspiration is more subtle and ambivalent than that. Night Liminal is partly inspired by the ancient monastic service of Compline, which takes place as day is ending. Both the service and its setting confront head-on the perils heralded by twilight.

Being in a sacred space at dusk is a profound and paradoxical experience, comforting yet unsettling. One is caught between light and darkness, between the vast expanse of tradition and the contemporary mystery of the moment. The night can be a dangerous and uncharted place; my hope is that this music can become an integral part of the gloaming, teasing out and resonating with both its delights and its uncertainties in a gentle act of provocation and peace.

Provocation may seem incongruous in the context of ambient music, but Night Liminal’s soft, slow-moving textures echo this; warm and melodic, sometimes dark and disquieting, they afford the listener a dual experience of rest and reflection.

Night Liminal is dedicated to the memory of Jehan Alain.

As usual, the CD is a limited edition of 50 numbered copies; to order a copy, go here.

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In memoriam

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Today is the anniversary of the death of my father, Richard Peter Weston Cummings. Over the years, i’ve composed several pieces that explore the range of feelings and memories associated with his passing, the most recent of which was my electronic work Triptych, May/July 2009, released on CD a few years ago. The piece was in part created using a photograph of my father (used on the CD artwork), which was manipulated and converted into sound in various ways to create the basic material from which the three movements were made. Musician and composer Danielle Baquet-Long, with whom i’d only just made contact, died suddenly while i was composing the work, so the Triptych is dedicated to her memory.

There are still some copies of the CD remaining, so to mark today, i’ve dropped the price significantly – just £2.50 for the CD (including UK shipping; slightly more for overseas) and a mere 50p for the digital download. For the CD go here, or for the download, here.

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Robert Mackay – Augustine’s Message

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The next work in my Lent series is one of my absolute favourite electronic compositions. The composer Robert Mackay, based in Scarborough, composed Augustine’s Message while studying in Bangor, in 2001. It was performed at the Bangor New Music Festival that year, and was included in an edition of Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ devoted to the festival. Back then, Mackay was planning a multimedia work based on the writings of Peter Abelard and his beloved Héloïse, originally intended as an opera (provisionally titled The Breath of Dionysius), but ultimately becoming a three-part cycle simply called Heloise, of which Augustine’s Message is the final part. Abelard’s relationship with Héloïse, conducted almost entirely in secret, ended in disaster, with Abelard being viciously castrated by Héloïse’s uncle Fulbert. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was the beginning of the end for the lovers, both of whom ended up in monastic communities. In Augustine’s Message, Mackay delves into both the psyche and the soul of Abelard at this tragic point, as he explains in the programme note:

In this section of the story, Saint Augustine visits Abelard in a dream, in which he is battling to come to terms with his recent castration. This reflects a passage from Abelard’s autobiography where he describes a thousand thoughts coming into his head soon after the brutal attack, yet him eventually finding solace in his belief that in some way this act of retribution has been a gift from God enabling him to be free from worldly, carnal lusts and focus the rest of his life on the spiritual and philosophical.

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Contemporary Epics: V/Vm – The Death of Rave

Posted on by 5:4 in Thematic series | 6 Comments

In the last few days i’ve highlighted some impressive examples of music composed on an ‘epic’ scale. i’ve saved the biggest until last, but even by saying that, i’ve touched on an inherent danger lurking in a discussion of this kind. When any musical parameter is taken to a compositional extreme, the mere act of doing that starts to rupture a work’s integrity, as much æsthetically as practically. Let’s put it another way; what interests me so much in a work like Robert Rich’s Somnium is both what he’s striving to do and the way in which he’s trying to do it. It’s a piece that requires its duration to be extreme, but it’s not a piece about duration; the danger is to put undue—or, worse, all—emphasis on that one aspect, and thereby fracture one’s holistic appreciation of the piece. One might argue, reasonably, that it’s difficult to ignore the durational aspect of a work lasting seven hours; but that’s not, hopefully, what one’s thinking about as each minute passes in Somnium—or, indeed, in the Trilogy in Three Parts, Blemished Breasts, or July 17, 2010. When setting out to explore these five ‘contemporary epics’, extended duration was my common thread, but i hope it’s been clear that that aspect is ultimately an integral component in a much larger and richer whole; in a nutshell, what these pieces share is that their extensive durations fully support and are at the service of the music. Read more

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Mika Vainio – Life (… It Eats You Up)

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For around seven minutes, you wonder where you are. Extended, sharp, contorted droning outbursts emanate from somewhere, wrestling either to cling to or break free from their origin. It’s like witnessing an alien voice learn how to speak. And then, seemingly from nowhere, IRRUPTION! the music transformed into a massive doom expansion moving with the grace and momentum of tectonic plates. It’s a breathtakingly glorious but agonising moment, one that says everything about what Mika Vainio is setting out to explore on his new album, Life (…It Eats You Up).

This album hurts. Which is not to say that it hurts the ears (although, at times, they take no little pounding), but rather that every one of its 58 minutes comes from a place of sheer, horrified and enraged pain. One hasn’t heard an essay as stark and aggressively wounded as this since Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. Indeed, the first example of regularity on the album, third track ‘Mining’, is built on a rhythmic loop reminiscent of NIN’s ‘Closer’. Those familiar with Vainio’s work in Pan Sonic may expect otherwise, but beats are emphatically not what this album is about; if anything, their presence can appear disorienting, begging the question of what they bring to the otherwise untethered violence. For it is violence with which one is confronted most—although the nature of the confrontation is one of half-spent energy, angular and wretched. Read more

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Mind-bogglingly beautiful: Fovea Hex – Here Is Where We Used To Sing

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Clodagh Simonds likes to take her time. Following an early spell of musical incandescence in the late ’60s and early ’70s (in her own group, the fascinating prog folk outfit Mellow Candle), the Irish singer was content to hover in the fringes for three and half decades before taking centre stage again in 2005. But even then, her return was a gradual one; in a new guise, Fovea Hex, Simonds took a further three years to unveil a one-hour cycle of music, titled Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. But what music it was! the nine tracks—released as three EPs: Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007)—did nothing less than reinvent from the bottom up the notions of what song is and can be. This was no irreverant act of avant-garde ruthlessness, however; Simonds’ folk leanings (and they are only leanings; she has repeatedly stated that she neither thinks of herself as a folk singer, nor does she feel part of a tradition)—despite their proximity in an apparently alien context—were loudly and proudly proclaimed seemingly at every moment. It was, in short, an almost incredible blending of ancient and modern ideas, an enterprise made all the more successful and telling by the contributions of such figures as Brian Eno, Colin Potter, Carter Burwell and The Hafler Trio‘s Andrew M. McKenzie, who also mesmerisingly reworked each EP for an accompanying CD series.

That choice of title, Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, could not have been chosen more wisely; it encapsulates perfectly the paradox confronting the listener in Fovea Hex’s music. On the one hand, as already stated, the folk elements are emphatically foregrounded, and folk music is at its heart communal music, not to be sat back and listened to, thought about and critiqued; on the contrary, it invites our participation, we are compelled to join in, to speak. Yet equally emphatic is a profound sense of ritual—not exactly a religious sense, it’s more diffuse and unfocused than that, but nonetheless a potent, perhaps pagan forcefulness that invokes a rather different kind of response. Rituals are communal acts too, of course, but participation here has more ebb and flow; at times, whether by rubrics or by our inner sense of the numinous, we are compelled to be silent. This unique, magical paradox has returned in dazzling fashion on Fovea Hex’s new album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, released last month. Read more

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Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

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If there’s one thing that characterises Tim Hecker’s music, it’s a spirit of dichotomy, sitting comfortably betwixt smooth, rounded ambient edges and jagged points of noise. Ravedeath, 1972 continues that dichotomy, and embodies another one, combining the effervescent caprice of live improvisation with the cool consideration subsequently brought to bear on it in the studio.

From the outset, this album makes it clear that noise is going to be the order of the day. First track ‘The Piano Drop’ – presumably named for the curious event on the cover – unveils material pushed into overload, although it’s neither harsh nor forbidding, bludgeoning the ears with all the force of a pillow fight. Its spinning surface quickly erodes away due to its own constriction into a more shimmering, pulsating kind of object, that seems to fade rather too quickly (i could happily have listened to this develop for a lot longer). Read more

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Ironomi – Sketch

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While stereotypes abound when discussing music emanating from the east, an acute sensitivity to the machinations and subtleties of nature seems to be an unmistakable, almost ubiquitous characteristic. This, complimented by a profound kind of simplicity, sets such music apart from the preoccupations of the west, which so often gravitate to extremes, either abounding in cerebral filigree or playing around in frothy, superficial nonsense.

For the last few years, Japanese duo Ironomi (いろのみ) have been exploring their own response to the world around them, with a particular interest in the seasons. Pianist Junya Yanagidaira is invariably found in the foreground, generating a seemingly eternal stream of improvisations; at the fringes is Yu Isobe, using his laptop to weave impossibly delicate and restrained contexts for the piano. Despite the prevalence of the piano in contemporary ambient music, their combined approach is a distinctive and somewhat unusual one, demonstrated to good effect on a cluster of releases, of which Recode (2008) is arguably the most assured. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: Ryoji Ikeda – datamatics [ver.2.0]

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts | 1 Comment

This is why we have eyes and ears.

Last night, i was fortunate to be seated in the front row of the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, for Ryoji Ikeda‘s first UK concert since 2006. datamatics [ver.2.0] has been around internationally for a little over two years, and yesterday finally found its way to Britain. The plain interior of the CBSO Centre was embellished with the addition of a huge screen, that filled the air with the pungent aroma of plastic newness. In its own way, this actually contributed to the occasion, making for an astonishing son et lumière display that literally saturated the senses with cutting-edge modernity. Read more

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Cut and Splice 2005: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender

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Returning to the archives, here’s an eclectic variety of electronic music from the 2005 Cut and Splice Festival in London. The festival included a focus on three composers associated with the German Raster-Noton label: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Olaf Bender (aka Byetone). An interview with Frank Bretschneider is illuminating, particularly when he speaks of the issues he and the related composers experienced when first presenting their music, and how it relates to electronic, contemporary and other traditions. Bretschneider comments on the disinterest shown by record labels towards their work, as it didn’t (he says) correspond to existing traditions in contemporary music; although why no-one felt the connection to minimalism is beyond me. With its emphasis on rhythm, and without depending on tired quasi-‘tonal’ harmonic ideas, it’s the kind of minimalism i can engage with; it’s “in your face”, confronting the listener with unavoidable glitches, blips and poundings, and all the better for it. Bretschneider’s untitled piece that follows is a superb example of this, exciting and irresistible, at times seeming to evoke the complexity of African drumming patterns. Read more

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Like a ton of feathers: Morten Riis – Digital Sound Drawings

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Many moons ago, i wrote a retrospective of the work of Ryoji Ikeda, composer of some the finest raw digital music yet created. It’s an unfortunate corollary that Ikeda, like all great innovators, has a sizeable cluster of imitators (‘flattery’ be damned), many of whom form part of the now woefully tautological output from the once interesting Raster-Noton label. But something quite new appeared today, from the Crónica netlabel that i’ve praised so highly in the past. Out today is the fifth of their ‘Unlimited Releases’ series: Digital Sound Drawings by the Danish composer Morten Riis. The short programme note speaks of these six compositions being “composed through the drawing of images and their direct conversion into sound”, which brings to mind the well-known spectral imagery occasionally used by, among others, Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares and Plaid (about which more can be read here). Riis’ compositions are quite different, however, more akin to ‘sculptures’ than anything else, something that becomes strikingly apparent when the music is listened to using audio editing software, as recommended by the composer. i found this a fascinating way to listen, proving revelatory about the sound structures Riss has created. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – cross-cultural peace and quiet

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Having spent the last four days absorbed in the monastic pattern of life at Burford Priory, i’ve returned home with, among other things, my senses both heightened and sensitised. i’ve needed somewhat gentle stimuli, and so it seems perfect timing to return to my ambient musings, focusing on the the collaborations between Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto. While i know little of Sakamoto’s work beyond these releases, i’m something of a fan of Carsten Nicolai’s work in the guise of Alva Noto; expect a post about his music as and when. Apparently, the nature of the collaboration was rather like that of The Postal Service, the two composers working independently, sending material back and forth, each modifying it further, until both felt that the music was ready. In a way, the polarisation is extreme; Sakamoto confines himself to the piano, around and through which Noto weaves his electronic blips, glitches and patterns. “Weaves” seems entirely the right word; there’s a palpable sense that this music is like an expertly-woven fabric, and this in itself is revealing; so many times have i heard the argument that electronic sounds cannot be integrated properly with acoustic instruments, an argument that seems disproved by the resultant textures of this collaboration. Admittedly, the material is simple and restrained, often to the point of appearing austere (no surprise that i’m drawn back to this music after spending time in a monastery!), and this may account for the success of the blending. Read more

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Ryoji Ikeda – a retrospective

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It doesn’t seem to matter what medium they turn their hand to – film, fashion, theatre, literature, photography or, indeed, music – Japanese culture always seems to combine an intensity and honesty of expression with a forthright, futuristic vision. By contrast, we in the West – particularly here in England, perhaps the least open-minded, forward-thinking country on the planet – are often as distant from them conceptually as we are geographically. Over the years, i have kept finding what emanates from Japan to be an endlessly fascinating stream of inspiration. In a way, it’s easy to laugh at them, but only, i suspect, because we see in them an unabashed individualism we crave to possess. Musically, they demonstrate a freshness in their approach to sound and how it can be sculpted into different forms. i’ve written before of Merzbow, master of so-called “Japanoise”, the surface of whose work i feel i’ve only just begun to scratch. Just as capable of polarising opinion is Ryoji Ikeda, no less raw and elemental (although, i suspect, much more brilliant) than Merzbow, but preferring to look to the very heart of what sound is, precise and surgical, rather than dense and torrential. Equally precise is Ikeda’s output: a small collection of releases, each of which fashions music from the barest of fundamentals. and i choose that word carefully; Ryoji Ikeda uses bare sound waves as his raw material, constructing patterns that evolve and juxtapose themselves, often ordered, occasionally more chaotic. Read more

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Autechre, and the Question of Quaristice

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Prior to the launch of Quaristice, Autechre‘s Sean Booth said the following, in an interview with Clash Magazine, concerning the issue of whether to buy the digital download or the physical CD:

It makes no odds to me. Actually, it does; I’d prefer (people) to download it than buy it physically. It fits our agenda much better that way. Our plan has never been to produce CDs – it’s always been about making music. If there’s a way of charging for it and getting the content to people, then we’ll adopt whichever is the most transparent. The actual product is the FLAC file – but I don’t object to those who want to own something that they can hold.

In itself, this is a valuable and thought-provoking addition to the debate which has been rearing up increasingly often over the last few years. But returning to this specific example, i think one needs to consider Booth’s comments in the light of the fact that Quaristice has been released in two editions, the latter of which – including a bonus CD of re-worked and alternative versions of the tracks on the main album – was a limited edition of only 1,000 copies, with no digital download option. Is it me, or is there a contradiction here? That tracks of such quality and importance – both within Autechre’s oeuvre and electronic music more widely – should be denied to the majority of their listeners seems clearly at odds with Sean Booth’s intentions. If we are to take Booth at his word, that Autechre is only concerned with “making music” and getting it out by “the most transparent” methods possible, it’s ridiculous to release a special edition of the album in this way. Furthermore, copies are already appearing on eBay for sums well in excess of £100 (they were sold for £25), which makes Autechre’s claimed intentions even more ludicrous. Of course, the special edition could be a ruse by Warp to increase interest and generate extra income; but somehow i doubt it, as Warp has always (seemed to) put its artists’ intentions as paramount. Read more

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Ghosts drowning in supreme thunder: Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I–IV

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i was surprised to find, yesterday, that since 1 January, i had listened to 99 albums. It seemed all too fortunate then, that my 100th album of the year should be a brand new release from one of my favourite artists and, in my opinion, one of the very greatest creative minds in music today, Nine Inch Nails (the mind belongs to Trent Reznor, of course). Having been loosed from his record label bonds late last year, Reznor is leading the way in a new kind of thinking, in terms of music distribution. In interviews, and in the way his collaboration with Saul Williams was released last autumn, Reznor is clearly enthusiastic about new ways of delivering music to the fans.

His new album, released 2 days ago, is Ghosts I–IV [Halo 26], which comprises four 9-track EPs, each filled entirely with instrumental music. There’s a variety of ways in which the music can be obtained: the first EP, Ghosts I, can be downloaded free of charge; all four can be downloaded for $5 (barely £2.50 at today’s rates); a 2CD edition is available for $10; and, for the really keen, there are “deluxe” and “ultra deluxe” editions, with additional accoutrements. i opted for the 2CD edition which, since it isn’t released until April, entitled me to an immediate download in any format i chose – unsurprisingly, i opted for FLAC – which includes a large number of wallpapers and other graphics, plus a PDF file of the accompanying 40-page book (each track has its own, very beautiful, artwork). It’s not the first time i’ve encountered an artist including a digital download in the purchase of a CD (Björk began doing it recently), but it seems an idea that will probably catch on, since it both allows one to listen immediately, as well as providing the listener who wants it with a physical object. Read more

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Not Einstürzende Neubauten but Eingestürzt Altbauten: Belong

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One of the most immediately powerful and communicative images of our time is that of the ruin. Whether it’s something prosaic and dark, like a human suicide, or profound and vivid, like the remains of a cathedral, the effect is similar: we’re made aware of, and irresistably drawn into, something that projects its history upon us. and if the ruin makes for a striking image, it is capable of being an even more breathtaking artistic metaphor – the suicide images of Rachel Howard and the juxtaposition of the new Coventry Cathedral alongside its wrecked sibling are wonderful examples. While concepts such as deconstruction, entropy and collapse are all too common in contemporary music – a worrying fact, worthy of study – the very different concept of ruin is rarely explored. Belong is a duo from the United States who seek to do just that; their music is a few years old now, so it surprises me that more people haven’t encountered it (including me; i did only a few weeks ago). Read more

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