improvisation

Summartónar 2019 (Part 1)

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When did you last listen to music from the Faroe Islands? Who’s your favourite Faroese composer or group? For many, i suspect, those questions would likely be impossible to answer, and until recently – with the big exception of Eivør, one of my very favourite singers – i would have been in the same position. That is, until a few weeks ago, when i took up an invitation to spend some time at Summartónar, the Faroe Islands’ annual music festival.

To say that Summartónar is different from most music festivals is not simply an understatement but a reflection of the broader fact that pretty much everything in the Faroe Islands is, to some degree, different from everywhere else. Its location, a remote spot in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway; its composition, a cluster of 18 principal islands (all but one inhabited) none of which is longer than around 30 miles, rising vertiginously from sea level to form austere, alien hill ranges; its language, rooted in Old Norse and today resembling a curious mash-up of Icelandic and Danish. Though clearly related and connected to a wider community, it’s nonetheless a place that feels uncannily dislocated.

Nothing in the Faroes is ordinary, and unsurprisingly this extends to its cultural life too. Even before i’d experienced anything first hand i’d heard how, due to its relatively small population (around 51,000), musicians there tend not to fit into neat generic or stylistic categories but instead take part in a wide variety of musical forms, encompassing and combining folk, jazz, classical, pop and the avant-garde. Such a pluralistic outlook as this can be seen in the make-up of Summartónar itself. Its events, most of which gravitate around the capital city of Tórshavn, generally fall into one of three broad descriptors: folk / singer-songwriter, jazz / world, and classical / experimental; beyond these are cultural evenings (about which more in a moment) and concerts taking place out of doors and in caves. Despite its remoteness and relatively small size, there’s clearly a wealth of music-making going on in the Faroes, which perhaps explains why the Summartónar festival lasts for no less than three full months (June to August). Read more

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Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann – LP1

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It was perhaps inadvertently helpful that i first listened to LP1, a new release from Joseph Branciforte and Theo Bleckmann, in bed late at night. Not because it’s nocturnal, as such, but more to do with the fact that it sounded in sympathy with the pitch blackness all around me. For while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that LP1 is an album without colours, still less that it’s a ‘black’ music, there’s nonetheless an inscrutability to its palette that i find fascinating every time i listen to it. Its soundworld is something of an amalgam of the cycling, mechanical, glitchy plinky-clunk of Michael Cutting and the overlapping, quasi-isorhythmic patterns of Brian Eno’s earliest ambient music. If that suggests a paradox, the one tightly-controlled and hands-on, the other loosely-arranged and hands-off, then that’s exactly what permeates all four tracks of LP1, a sensibility in which improvisational freedom and compositional planning are evidently both being brought to bear on the music at the same time.

There’s a dronal aspect to this, which fuels the sense of music always moving while never moving far from its starting point. In opening track ‘6.15’ it’s founded upon enormous deep bass pulses that form the bedrock for a network of soft glitches, breathy vocalise and an assortment of pitches that emerge and recede at random. The bass is so profoundly low that it practically transcends the notion of drone, instead becoming a kind of architectonic rumble, like the low resonance given off by a far-distant energy source. Its omnipresence is curiously elusive; trying to focus on it somehow renders it less perceptible. Nonetheless, its consistency enables a dual state that on one level feels meditative – its higher-level sounds gently impinging against each other, occasionally accompanied by wordless singing – while being simultaneously insistent, demanding attention. As such, it’s not remotely background or atmospheric music, but an altogether more active form of immersion. Third track ‘4.19’ acts in a similar way, delicate Fender Rhodes notes calmly rotating and coalescing around a fixed central point, like a sonic mobile. There are hints of Eno’s Music For Airports here, but its texture is much more complex, and again, doesn’t in any way encourage disinterest in the listener. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 2)

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The lack of ostentation in most of the music at this year’s Only Connect festival was perhaps nowhere more conspicuous than in a concert last Saturday devoted to French composer Pascale Criton. Performed by violinist Silvia Tarozzi, cellist Deborah Walker and singers Stine Janvin Joh, Signe Irene Stangborli Time and Liv Runesdatter (members of vocal group Song Circus), the concert featured three works of Criton’s. Two of them were solos, and they highlighted just how elusive is the nature of Criton’s material. In Circle Process, the whole nature of playing the violin wasn’t simply stripped back to its essentials, but sublimated and abstracted, Tarozzi primarily concerned with varying forms of friction, the by-product of scuffing and scraping her instrument. From such pitchless (non-)fundamentals, the piece opened out into a complex semi-focused pitch that, while never really deviating, was nonetheless permanently unstable. Only towards the work’s end did Tarozzi become more demonstrative, but even then her wild gestures were a litany of seemingly static harmonics that soon receded back to the pitchless place from whence they began. The process was somewhat reversed in Chaoscaccia, Walker’s cello setting out in a network of dancing ricochets and groaning pitches that occasionally moved close to forming unisons. Criton undermined the boldness of this opening by pushing the material back into nebulous, abstract territory, Walker giving convoluted articulation to harmonics that, again, were fundamentally static. The work’s conclusion was uncanny, a sequence of crescendos from nothing, each abruptly silenced, as if an unseen presence were directly intervening to cancel things out. 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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North of North, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras – Ellesmere

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My first encounter with the music of Anthony Pateras – in the form of last year’s The Slow Creep of Convenience, his duo with violinist Erkki Veltheim – was a mind-blowing experience, one of the best things i had heard all year. So i was excited when two new discs arrived recently, both featuring Pateras, in guises that are both similar to and very different from that previous release. They’ve been giving me much to think about, particularly with regard to improvisation.

North of North is a trio project in which Pateras and Veltheim are joined by trumpeter Scott Tinkler, and their latest self-titled album, released a couple of months back on the trio’s own label _offcompass_, is a three-part improvised journey called Church Of All Nations. Where improvisation is concerned, there’s an important distinction to be made between short-term and long-term perspectives. The most interesting improvisations i’ve heard don’t simply pay equal attention to both these perspectives, but unfold in such a way as to keep throwing emphasis on one such that our understanding of the other is enriched. The effect on the listener is akin to cinematic zooms and panning, pushing in to scrutinise filigree surface details, pulling out to reveal their broader context. As far as Church Of All Nations is concerned there’s an immediate hint, even before listening, that long-term considerations have been borne in mind, since the three parts are presented in the non-sequential order 1-3-2, an interesting decision that perhaps says something about the overall tone and content of the piece. Read more

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