Germany

Ensemble Musikfabrik – Stille, Label Musikfabrik

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Let’s talk about Ensemble Musikfabrik. First off, the German ensemble is responsible for some of the most memorable and fascinating concerts i’ve ever attended. Their performances during the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival remain personal favourites, both the opening weekend concert – including among other things, Georg Friedrich Haas’ I can’t breathe and Marcin Stańczyk’s marvellous Some Drops, both showcasing trumpeter Marco Blauuw – and also the concert based around the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, featuring Claudio Molitor’s hour-long act of sonic wonderment, Walking With Partch. But even more than these, the concert that remains most affectionately in my memory – one of the most exhilarating concerts of my life – was their performance at the one-off Bristol New Music festival in 2014, where the combination of Partch’s And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma with a medley of works by Frank Zappa must rank as one of the finest acts of music-making that the city’s Colston Hall had ever experienced. What all of these concerts demonstrate is Musikfabrik’s generous and warm openness to all forms of experimentation, no matter how weird or ostensibly ludicrous, in conjunction with a level of determination and commitment that’s nothing less than absolute. Only an attitude like this could have led to the Partch instruments being so painstakingly and lovingly recreated, as well as to the development of new iterations of familiar instruments, such as their double-bell brass instruments.

The ensemble’s outlook is mirrored entirely on their recorded output which, more than most, goes a long way to capturing the vivid discombobulation of their concert performances. Their most recent disc, Stille, the twelfth in their ongoing series Edition Musikfabrik, is yet another case in point. It’s true to say that a Musikfabrik concert can and often does involve a certain amount of acclimatisation, and it’s also true for Die Bewegung der Augen by Evan Johnson. As with all four works on this disc, it’s a piece exploring silence, or rather the fact that silence “is never empty” (from Johnson’s programme note). Clearly the by-product of a lot more activity (in one form or another) than is audibly apparent, Johnson’s music here sounds private, not merely behind closed doors but positively internalised and miniaturised, as though we were privy to small-scale activities and actions that would otherwise be entirely oblivious to us. Its little bursts of material surrounded by silence gradually instigate a different mode of listening, one where i came to feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man, becoming smaller and smaller to the point that its tiny sounds and gestures yawned ever more impossibly above me. Beyond this, particularly in the second and third movements, a halting lyrical streak emerges that, in such a pint-sized context, sounds enormously poignant. Read more

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Singular, ingenious, historic: Roland Kayn – A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound

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From a certain perspective our galaxy, the Milky Way, could be described as being ‘little’. However, with a diameter of up to 180,000 light years across, comprising as many as 400 billion stars, that perspective would be a decidedly rarefied one, viewing things, both figuratively and literally, on an astronomical scale. One gets the impression that German composer Roland Kayn looked upon sound in a similarly rarefied way. Certainly, approaching Kayn’s newly-released 2009 cycle A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound, a veritable sonic galaxy comprising 22 movements that last a little under 14 hours, necessitates getting one’s ears and mind around an altogether different kind of organisational perspective.

My relationship with Kayn’s music stretches back many years. First contact was around the turn of the millennium, while studying at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague, where Kayn had worked during its time in Utrecht, in the early 1970s, and whose name – along with that of Gottfried Michael Koenig – was spoken of not quite in hushed tones, but with a real sense of admiration, even awe. These fleeting encounters were consolidated by the marvellous CD reissue of Kayn’s Tektra, a five-hour work completed in 1982. Since then, i’ve got to know many more works, both via rips of old vinyl records that can be found online as well as some of the Reiger-records-reeks discs that were released during the late nineties and early noughties, and i’ve come to regard his output as among the most fascinating and significant of the last 70 years. He’s been featured on two of my mix tapes (#12 and #21) and a major electronic work of mine, Simulated Music, is dedicated to Kayn’s memory.

So for those who are interested to explore it, there’s a lot out there, now crowned by this sumptuous new sixteen-disc box set of A Little Electronic Milky Way Of Sound by the innovative Finland-based label Frozen Reeds. Yet it’s important to stress how extremely unknown Roland Kayn’s music remains, even to many of those directly involved in or otherwise knowledgeable about electronic music. Furthermore, despite the quantity of music that’s available, the amount of information and scholarly discourse about Kayn’s work is, to put it mildly, minimal (though the recently revamped Roland Kayn website has at last improved this situation a little). The reason for this is partly ignorance, of course, but perhaps as much to do with the fact that Kayn espoused a compositional approach (initially inspired by the philosopher Max Bense) that he termed ‘cybernetic’, where the composer’s involvement lay in systemically setting things up – sound possibilities, behavioural rules, etc. – but then allowing this system to go its own way. In one of his only published interviews (with Frans van Rossum), Kayn described the process and the envisaged result in this way:

The music becomes autonomous once the composer has no control over the direction it takes once he has set it in motion. […] No single composer, no matter the extent of his imagination, could conceive of this enormous variety of sounds, nor could he have conceived of the way they might be created, only the impulses which set the piece in motion can really be considered direct involvement by the composer. The result is because of purely autonomous processes.”

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Altered (steady) states: Kenneth Kirschner – September 27, 2016/November 17, 2016; Markus Reuter – Falling for Ascension; Formuls – entryiseasierthantheexit_exit

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A few years ago, when writing an extensive monograph on the music of Kenneth Kirschner, i used the term ‘steady state’ to indicate the particular way in many of his works that material is deployed and juxtaposed over extended periods of time. This latter aspect, extended time, is vital: both as a compositional approach and a listening experience, it could be described as ‘macrospective’; what happens moment by moment is of secondary importance to its long-term structural dimension. However, what makes ‘steady statism’ – to coin a phrase – so engaging is the way we as listeners are pulled back and forth between focusing on the short- and long-term actions of the music, ever aware of its essential open-endedness yet nonetheless engaged by the shifting, possibly transient, ways it is manifested on the surface.

Steady statism has connections (roots even) to, among other things, 20th century US experimentalism and ambient music, two areas that have had and continue to have significant influence on contemporary music-making. In Kirschner’s case, it remains a key part of his musical language, demonstrated in several of his most recent works (all of which are available for free download from his website). In September 27, 2016, it’s articulated via widely-spaced miniature gestures – emanating from what sounds like piano, violin, vibraphone and/or glockenspiel: possibly real, probably synthetic – each one comprising a single pitch held for a short time. Not all of the instruments play in each gesture, and the length the pitches are held is not precisely exact in each instrument, but that’s by the by; the process the work undergoes is a simple, solemn statement of these micro-ideas, each one allowed to sound for only a few seconds before the music disappears back into the darkness. The silences are roughly between 20 and 40 seconds’ duration, meaning that most of September 27, 2016 is silent, yet to my mind this only gives each of these sonic motes more potency. And there are surprises too, such as when, nine minutes in, there suddenly appear to be many more string instruments present than we suspected. Fascinating and beautiful. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 3)

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i mentioned in Part 1 that much of the music at this year’s Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik was either for or revolved around the string quartet. But there was also a collection of works (including three i unfortunately missed due to not being able to stay for the final concert) composed for more diverse instrumental groupings. All of them packed the most almighty wallop, though in the case of Ondřej Adámek‘s Conséquences particulèrements blanches ou noires, one was left wondering whether the Czech composer really has anything new to say beyond wheeling out more iterations of his tired air machine. There’s more to his music than this machine, of course, though the puckish, flamboyant way Adámek utilises it – often clearly intended to be humorous – is by now exasperatingly over-familiar, and in any case, in this particular piece, the machine took centre stage – both musically and literally within the hall (something of a contrast to a piece like Korper und Seele, performed at Donauschingen in 2014, where it was for the most part used more peripherally). The overall tone came across like a movie created from nothing but a string of set pieces, with no narrative to string it all together. The relationship between the machine and the ensemble was essentially an imitative one, the latter picking up the blurts and farts of the former and turning them into a kind of avant-cartoon music. Yawn. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music), Germany’s annual three-day blow out celebrating the newest iterations of the idiom. It was my first experience of the festival, and i have to say my initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The definition of ‘chamber music’ is treated with considerable flexibility, ranging from solo pieces to works for moderately large chamber orchestras, and the presentation and performance standard of the concerts – not surprisingly, considering its reputation – were never less than outstanding, staged in superb venues, showcasing some of the finest contemporary music specialists in the world. As for the music, which was hugely varied, for the most part the same could be said of the featured composers. For the most part. Read more

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Beguiling/bemusing, pretentious/profound: the continuing challenge of Wandelweiser

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There’s a lot of music that i don’t write about. That’s kind of an obvious, even stupid thing to say: what i mean is that there’s a lot of music that i listen to that i don’t then write about. Invariably it’s due to some fundamentally problematic aspect that makes recommending it to others less of a necessity than a slightly cruel prank. Before i continue (and momentarily to digress), i must stress that i generally avoid thinking of composers in terms of trends, ‘schools’, ‘isms’ and other group terms that bundle them together due to some spurious connection, but considering the particular composers i’m writing about today have deliberately grouped themselves together, it seems appropriate to regard them in that way. To continue then: Wandelweiser. There’s a lot of Wandelweiser that i’ve listened to that i haven’t written about. A lot. And this fact has strangely been gnawing away at me recently as i’ve been pondering the latest batch of CD releases to have come from the Wandelweiser stable. To be fair to myself, i haven’t avoided them entirely: before HCMF 2015—at which Jürg Frey was composer-in-residence—i examined some of the then recent output from both him and a couple of other Wandelweiser composers, and there’s been a sprinkling of subsequent encounters, all i now realise also in conjunction with events going on at Huddersfield. This belies the fact that i have actually listened to an immense amount of their output, and it struck me recently that, instead of avoiding writing about it due to the conflicted reactions it so often engenders, perhaps that’s a worthwhile, even an important subject worthy of discussion in and of itself. Read more

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