John Cage

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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A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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New releases: Matthias Kaul, Ensemble Musikfabrik – works by Cage, Hosokawa, Harvey, Poppe, Saariaho & Nunes

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Three recent releases on Wergo have stayed true to the German label’s tendency to go above and beyond one’s expectations. It’s hard to say which is more remarkable, John Cage or percussionist Matthias Kaul, on Cage After Cage, an album featuring renditions of six of the composer’s works for percussion, dating from as far back as 1956 to as recent as 1990. In many respects, the collection as a whole can be heard as tapping (literally) into the very essence of what percussion is, namely the banging, scraping and rubbing of objects. The range of sounds and timbres captured here borders on the encyclopaedic, even in otherwise modest contexts, such as Kaul’s version of Composed Improvisation (1990) for solo snare drum. i’m not sure i actually heard anything approximating to a snare anywhere in the piece; instead, following a collection of friction noises with light ricochets, comes a high chord(!), perfectly in tune, spacially-separated hocketing impacts, and a descending Shepard tone-like sequence of strikes. In other words, sounds that defy one’s understanding of a snare drum, articulated and excited via an assortment of unconventional triggers (including, by the sound of things, an ebow). Read more

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Mixtape #32 : Best Albums of 2014

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HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

Many, many thanks to all of you who have followed the blog through the last 12 months, particularly to all those who have commented and tweeted in response or retort. As usual, here’s my new year mixtape featuring a track from all forty of my Best Albums of the Year. i said yesterday how 2014 had been a breathtaking year, and listening to this 3-hour condensed version of its best music, i really think that becomes obvious.

Enjoy! – and assuming you do, please support the artists wherever possible; links to purchase each of the albums can be found on the last two days’ articles.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, followed by the download link; and you can also stream the mixtape via Mixcloud. Read more

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Best Albums of 2014 (Part 2)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Bringing the main course to an end, here’s the conclusion of the countdown of my forty best albums of 2014. It’s been a breathtaking year.

20 | Salvatore Sciarrino – Cantare con silenzio

Easily one of the strangest albums of the year, from a composer who continues to push back the boundaries of what constitutes contemporary classical music. Two of the three works on the disc focus on the flute, sometimes violently foregrounding it while elsewhere it becomes lost amidst heavier forces. The oldest work on the disc, Berceuse, is wonderfully weird, summarised in my original review as “like a seething, roiling organic mass, acting in waves of dense, surging material, it’s as inscrutable as it is hypnotic”. [Presto Classical]

19 | Bass Communion – Box Set

This rather wondrous 4-disc box set brings together a considerable number of rarities from Steven Wilson’s Bass Communion back catalogue. The earliest dates from as far back as 1998, the first of the deeply impressive Indicates Void series based on individual instruments, all of which still sound overwhelmingly modern. In many ways the collection proves how polarised is the Bass Communion canon, not just encompassing but often directly addressing extremes of serenity and cacophany. Regardless of which end of the spectrum Wilson finds himself, his highly-sculpted results are staggering to behold. [Steven Wilson HQ]

18 | irr. app. (ext.) – The Jennies Made Me Do It {1}

Three pieces originating in Matt Waldron’s collaborations and split releases with the equally unhinged At Jennie Richie, they chart an ambitious path through highly complex sonic imagery. ‘Studio Backflow’, unusually for Waldron, is driven along by a relentless pulse, slowly processing past a kaleidoscope of manic sights; ‘Foregone And Ungotten’—the highlight of the disc—begins as a radiant texture before passing down into something altogether more sinister and strange, whereupon it fragments and roams around in a seemingly endless dark space. [Bandcamp]

17 | OY – No Problem Saloon

One of 2014’s most marvellous oddities, No Problem Saloon melds African & European styles and manners into a uniquely congruous confection. Unaffected almost to a fault, OY’s lyrics tackle subjects almost embarrassingly slight (the joys of afros and dreadlocks) as well as deeply profound, the latter captured in the album’s standout track ‘Doondari’, which recounts in detail the stages of the Fulani story of the creation of the world. From my review: “Essentially a slice of drum-pumped electronica, Frempong’s rapid meandering through the repetitions of the story resembles a scrambling recitative passing through an assortment of episodes that skew off at oblique angles, the references to creation & milk finally combining in the quiet wail of a baby.” [Crammed Discs]

16 | Senko – Dronetudes

Despite the title of Danish musician Daniel Kosenko’s latest album, drones are not the primary focus of Dronetudes. Some of these absorbing studies do involve them, draped like large swatches of fabric across each other to create extended forms that shift and shimmer. Beats predominate too, though, existing both in sympathy with and counter to this slower material, and Kosenko clearly revels in the disjunct interrelationship, heard to best effect in ‘karpus trio’—a track that clearly can’t sit still—and album opener ‘wolfsong’, the underlying light of which is continually flecked and tickled by surface-layer beat tracery. [Hymen]

15 | John Pickard – Gaia Symphony / Eden

John Pickard’s magnum opus for brass orchestra and percussion has been given a superb new recording by the Norwegian Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag. Although daunting in terms of both scale and scope, the Gaia Symphony is an immensely accessible and immediate work, carving “huge, rough shapes but handles them as though they were fluid, forming them into pounding rhythms and pseudo-fanfares” (from my review). Anyone potentially put off by the thought of 65 minutes of brass music: think again – Pickard has revivified the medium for the 21st century in this astounding piece. [Presto Classical]

14 | Joseph Trapanese, Aria Prayogi & Fajar Yuskemal – The Raid 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of 2014’s most exhilarating movies needed nothing less than a score that matched it in terms of both violence and dexterity. What it got was easily the year’s most breathtaking soundtrack, one that moved and acted with the skill of the film’s hero, Rama – biding its time (and thereby tapping deeply into the emotional subtexts that run like threads throughout) before unleashing onslaughts of unimaginable ferocity and virtuosity. Music remade as a martial art. [Amazon]

13 | Markus Reuter – Sultry Kissing Lounge (Crimson ProjeKCt Tour 2014)

Superficially similar to the EP of tracks recorded in Australasia (included in my Best EPs of the Year list), this extended set originating in European concerts goes very much further and deeper. ‘Patricia’ sets the bar very high, filled with surging triadic waves that continually hint at but thwart any cadential connotations; ‘Lorena’ opts for a vaguer harmonic language that threatens to be dragged into the depths. All 13 of these remarkable improvisations are outstandingly beautiful, crowned by Reuter’s thrilling white-hot guitar improvisations, frenzies shaped into melodies like strands of lightning from a Tesla coil. [Iapetus]

12 | St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Something from Annie Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne seems to have rubbed off, as her latest album has a distinctly heavyweight lollop in its step from the get go. Songs like ‘Rattlesnake’, ‘Birth in Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ are punchy as hell, eat beat like a slap in the chops. Her experimental nature still pervades every song, making even relatively conventional numbers like ‘Psychopath’ sound oblique; standout track ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ encapsulates the album, pushed along with military precision while exploring unexpected side alleys en route. Not a verse-chorus structure in sight. [Amazon]

11 | John Cage – Works for Two Keyboards • 2

Xenia Pestova, reigning queen of the toy piano, reunites with Pascal Meyer on this superb second survey of John Cage’s two-keyboard music. In my review i remarked how their performance of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos “is as fascinating as it is laugh-out-loud hilarious, their navigation through Cage’s indeterminate score resulting in a mercurial kind of halting hocket between the toy pianos & an array of bizarre sounds.” The prepared piano music is no less striking (and more gamelan-like than ever), testifying to the continual freshness and unpredictability of Cage’s music. [Amazon] Read more

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CD roundup (gli altri)

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Having recently examined the more interesting soloistic and orchestral new releases, it’s time to give an overview of the best of the rest, music that doesn’t fit quite so easily into nice categories. First, released today on the Innova label, is Sunken Cathedral, the new album from Korean-American composer and singer Bora Yoon. Described as “a sonic journey through the chambers of subconscious”, the collection of songs that comprise Sunken Cathedral are a testament to Yoon’s fascination with sound design, married to a vocal approach that evokes a kind of ecstatic mysticism (or should that be mystical ecstasy?). It’s a quality writ large at the outset, refitting Hildegard of Bingen into a soft ambient driftscape, but throughout the album it reveals itself in increasingly subtle and unexpected ways. Yoon’s ear is clearly very fine-tuned; a dreamy setting of the Latin In Paradisum text is encased in the sounds of a scrawling pen, dogs barking, gentle bow tappings on a viola, jangling chimes, the rustling of Bible pages, a pair of Buddha machines and — my favourite — “subwoofing spoons”. It’s heady, even intoxicating stuff, with absolutely no sense of novelty to any of it; each sound, literally, rings true. Read more

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John Cage – String Quartet in Four Parts

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In addition to intimacy, the string quartet is a medium capable of remarkable levels of austerity. It’s no surprise, then, that John Cage turned to the quartet as the vehicle for a work in which, “without actually using silence, I should like to praise it” (as Cage wrote to his parents, prior to starting the piece). A few years earlier, in 1947, Cage had composed his first orchestral work, The Seasons, using a technique that he described as a ‘gamut’. This involved the pre-composition of a collection of materials—chords, gestures, solitary sonic moments—that had no relation to each other. These would then become the entire repertoire for the compositional act, Cage choosing from this collection of materials as the mood took him. The gamut technique was an important step towards the aleatoric methods Cage would explore in the next stage of his output, and it’s heard with perhaps the greatest clarity in the work he wrote next, the String Quartet in Four Parts, composed in 1950. Here, Cage created a library of chords, and then a melodic line; to harmonise this melody, Cage called upon whichever chords supported the melody’s current pitch (the same chords always fixed to the same pitches). In addition to use of the gamut, the work also draws on the seasons for inspiration, being in four movements each of which is dedicated to one season. The reference to silence in the above quotation is arguably as much about motion as the actual presence or otherwise of sound itself. Indeed, the titles of the first three movements indicate a gradual tendency towards motionlessness: ‘Quietly Flowing Along’ (summer), ‘Slowly Rocking’ (autumn), ‘Nearly Stationary’ (winter). But another kind of silence evoked in the work is that of self-expression. By drastically restricting the composer’s palette to a small pool of disjunct fragments, the gamut technique to no little extent confounds most conventions of what might otherwise pass for “expression”. This is mirrored in an instruction to the players that they not only avoid vibrato but use minimal weight on the bow, resulting in a cool, detached, rather other-worldly sound, often sounding poised to evaporate. Read more

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John Cage – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

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Austerity is probably not the first characteristic that would come to mind when describing the music of John Cage, and yet that’s precisely what dominates his short song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, composed in 1942. The text is extracted from a passage (on page 556) of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

night by silentsailing night…
Isobel…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
quietly,
all the woods so wild, in mauves of
moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the
whitethorn, child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again ‘twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
deeply,
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Isobel
Sister Isobel
Saintette Isobel
madame Isa
Veuve La belle

Cage sets these words for voice and piano, on both of whom he imposes severe restrictions; the singer has just three pitches at their disposal (F#, G# and C#) while the pianist isn’t even allowed to open the lid, playing instead on the outside of the instrument. Cage flirted with strict pitch restrictions a few years earlier in the Five Songs for Contralto (song no. 3, “in Just-“, also uses just three pitches), but the atmosphere he establishes here is much more sombre and unsettling. The voice is instructed to sing without vibrato, and the result is a strange cross between sacred chant and folk song, somehow elegant and crude simultaneously. Read more

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Mixtape #22 : Best Albums of 2011

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A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all! 5:4 is four years old today, & as in previous years, here’s a new mixtape showcasing the music from my best albums of 2011. One track from each of them—in total, 3½ hours of eclectica to start the new year in real sonic style. Do, please, support all the artists if you like what you hear (& you will!); links to buy their excellent music are included on the previous few days’ posts.

Here’s the full tracklisting (click the image for high-res artwork):

Uh Huh Her – Wake To Sleep (from Nocturnes)
This Will Destroy You – Black Dunes (from Tunnel Blanket)
Philippe Petit – 03 nyctalopia (from Nyctalopia)
Kate Havnevik – Mouth 2 Mouth (from You)
Aleks Kolkowski & Ute Wassermann – nor’easter (from Squall Line)
Kate Wax – Maze Rider (Live From The Cave) (from Dust Collision)
Arlene Sierra – Surrounded Ground – III. Egress (from Arlene Sierra Vol. 1)
John Cage – 109 [One8 and 108] [excerpt] (from 108/109/110)
Autechre & The Hafler Trio – ha3oe [excerpt] (from ae3o3)
David Lynch – Bass D Dark Stairway (from INLAND EMPIRE (Original Motion Picture Score))
Patrick Wolf – House (from Lupercalia)
Roly Porter – Al Dhanab (from Aftertime)
Braids – Plath Heart (from Native Speaker)
Deerhoof – Super Duper Rescue Heads! (from Deerhoof vs. Evil)
Talvihorros – Beta (from Descent Into Delta)
Christopher William Anderson – An End To Calm (from Moskenstraumen)
Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place Ia [excerpt] (from A Static Place)
Frank Zappa – Worms From Hell (from Feeding The Monkies At Ma Maison)
Leyland Kirby – Eventually, it eats your lungs [excerpt] (from Intrigue & Stuff Volume 2)
Celer – Part II [excerpt] (from Noctilucent Clouds)
Merzbow – Kamadhenu (Part 1) [excerpt] (from Kamadhenu)
Ulver – Providence (from Wars of the Roses)
Chubby Wolf – Deeper and the Damage From (from Los que No Son Gentos)
aTelecine – The Smuggler (Draft One) (from A Cassette Tape Culture Phase Two)
Akita / Gustafsson / O’Rourke – Two Bird [excerpt] (from One Bird Two Bird)
Tartar Lamb II – Polyimage of Known Exits: 3rd Movement [excerpt] (from Polyimage of Known Exits)
Hecq – With Angels (from Avenger)
Jenny Hval – Engines in the City (from Viscera)
Björk – Hollow (from Biophilia)
Ektoise – There and Here (from Kiyomizu)
Svarte Greiner – Twin [excerpt] (from Twin)
Access to Arasaka – Ixion (from Geosynchron)
Grutronic and Evan Parker – Mesomerism In Rhythm [excerpt] (from Together In Zero Space)
Xela – Charm [excerpt] (from Exorcism)
Black Swan – White Mourning (from The Quiet Divide)
Fovea Hex – Falling Things (Where Does A Girl Begin?) (from Here Is Where We Used To Sing)
Indignant Senility – Side B [excerpt] (from Blemished Breasts)
Monty Adkins – Memory Box (from Fragile.Flicker.Fragment)
Three Trapped Tigers – Magne (from Route One Or Die)
The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation – Function (from Anthropomorphic)


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Best Albums of 2011 (Part 1)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

The list exists as a way of celebrating the known things which we all share that make us part of the same adventure, but the list also exists as a way of referring to the less-known things, which can remind us that the adventure does not have to be the same for everyone. […] The unfamiliar lists are routes at the edges of the city, in the shadows […] that make us feel a different kind of excitement, the excitement of discovery, the excitement of change. The change that makes the adventure constantly surprising. (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here’s the first part of my list of the best albums released this year; i hope in some small part it lives up to what Paul Morley is talking about.

40 | Uh Huh Her – Nocturnes
Uh Huh Her’s EP Black and Blue, released in the spring (and included on yesterday’s Best EPs list), hinted at what was coming, and that promise has been abundantly fulfilled on this album, the duo’s first in three years. Their edgy rock sound, propelled by synths, makes for a fascinating combination with the girls’ trademark lyrical vocal style, resulting in a rare kind of electropop that packs a surprisingly emotional punch. Occasional influences reveal themselves (Björk, Elizabeth Fraser) but Uh Huh Her have finally developed a sound all to themselves. It’s a shame the album is yet another victim of the loudness war, but the songs manage to rise above it. [UhHuhHer.com | iTunes]

39 | This Will Destroy You – Tunnel Blanket
You can’t mess around if you’re going to call yourselves This Will Destroy You, and there’s absolutely no messing on the group’s second album. The eight tracks progress at a sedate pace, made highly dramatic through the strategic use of lengthy quiet episodes. Subsequent loud eruptions solemnly plough noisy doomgaze territory, but TWDY’s interests extend beyond the confines of conventional post-rock; “Glass Realms”, in particular, inhabits a place of radiant ambient calm, and while the overarching theme is clearly a dark one, there’s so much beauty in evidence that it’s all too easy to forget that. [Amazon | iTunes]

38 | Philippe Petit – Nyctalopia
No-one destroys sound like Philippe Petit, and on this album there are more grit-scarred layers than ever. The distinction between treated recordings and live sounds created in the studio is similarly broken down, each track embodying both a ruthless sense of method and an aggressive spontaneity. Petit’s method, though, isn’t too far removed from madness, layer heaped upon layer until the ear can barely make sense of the complex textures that result. The power and intensity of this music mean that Nyctalopia is not a particularly easy listen, but it’s an undeniably rewarding one. [Free download]

37 | Kate Havnevik – You
Continuing the trend of outstanding Scandinavian pop, Kate Havnevik has clearly put the five years since her debut album to good use, as Youfinanced via PledgeMusic—is a huge leap forward. There are still occasions when she strays a little too closely to the sound of Imogen Heap (perhaps due to Guy Sigsworth’s involvement), but many of the songs are now nicely distinctive; the shuffling “Castaway” shows off the power of Havnevik’s voice, while “Soon” and “Tears in Rain” surround her with scintillating analogue electronics. [KateHavnevik.com]

36 | Aleks Kolkowski & Ute Wassermann – Squall Line
Ute Wassermann’s collaborations with Aleks Kolkowski go back a number of years (a pair of recordings from the 2007 Interlace concerts can be downloaded here), but this is the first time their bewildering music has been officially released. Anyone familiar with Wassermann’s incredible feats of vocal gymnastics will, at least in part, know what to expect—and, in fact, a few of the pieces (each inspired by weather systems) feel a little too gesturally familiar; but for the most part, it’s impossible to know who’s doing what or indeed how, and their combined music is a delirious triumph of improvisation.

35 | Kate Wax – Dust Collision
Kate Wax is the pseudonym of Aisha Devi Enz, who describes herself as “Swiss-born, half-Tibetan”. Hardly surprising, then, that’s she’s prone to do things a little differently, and while her songs have a recognisable dance aspect, this is always at the mercy of a determined urge to experiment. Take “Maze Rider (Live From The Cave)”, for instance, where a cold sawtooth bass underpins Wax’s twisting vocal line; later episodes with beats seem almost a concession in such a context as this. Elsewhere—as in the title track and “Holy Beast”—she’s more recognisably conventional, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and as a whole this is one of the year’s most interesting and successful albums of truly experimental songs.

34 | Arlene Sierra – Arlene Sierra Vol. 1
Just when you start wondering whether contemporary instrumental music doesn’t have anything new left to explore, along comes this, the first compilation of Arlene Sierra’s music. The earliest included work (Ballistae) is a decade old, but the rest of the pieces date from within the last five years. Sierra’s music is fresh and unpredictable, and the works connected with creatures—the chamber piece Cicada Shell and Birds and Insects for solo piano—make a particularly strong impression. A vocal work, Two Neruda Odes, indicates a lyrical streak to her work, but this appears to be of only secondary interest; Sierra is most in her element exploring rather hectic, scurrying textures. Superb performances throughout; the “Vol. 1” in the CD title is nicely optimistic—one hopes it’s not too long before there’s a Vol. 2. [Amazon]

33 | John Cage – 108/109/110
John Cage’s number pieces, composed late in his life, are among the most enigmatic of his entire output. They break down all kinds of conventions, adopting a form of notation known as the “time bracket technique”, constructing works from fragments of material with indications as to when they take place. The titles derive from the number of players involved, and frequently Cage stipulated that one piece could be performed simulataneously with others to form new compositional entities. This album focuses on Cage’s largest number work, 108, performed by itself and in conjunction with One8 and Two3. The performances (by the wonderfully-named “Chance Philharmonic”) are magnificent and the soundworld is riveting throughout, demonstrating anew how our understanding of Cage’s music is still a work-in-progress. [CDBaby | Amazon]

32 | Autechre & The Hafler Trio – ae3o3
i dare say this release, quite apart from the intentions of its creators, got hyped up way more than it should have, being announced and postponed repeatedly for about three years. When it finally emerged, back in the summer, the resulting music probably thwarted more than a few expectations—but taken on its own terms, this is a fine addition to the previous collaborations between these artists. Quite what Autechre’s involvement consists of remains unclear; once again, in both style and duration (lasting 3¾ hours), ae3o3 comes across entirely as a Hafler Trio work, forming large-scale sound sculptures from slow-moving, granite-like slabs of noise. The first of the two tracks, ‘ah3eo’, is a little bland and goes over ground pretty much covered before, but the second track, ‘ha3oe’ is very exciting indeed, one of the finest electronic compositions i’ve heard this year. [Norman Records]

31 | David Lynch – INLAND EMPIRE (Original Motion Picture Score)
Since relaunching his website, David Lynch has been primarily concerned with releasing supplementary material connected with Twin Peaks. But this year he also released a new version of the soundtrack to his last film INLAND EMPIRE, doing away with the songs and incidental music, replacing them with an additional 25 minutes of the score Lynch himself composed for the film (in a break with tradition, Angelo Badalamenti wasn’t involved this time). As such, the album is now far more consistent and genuinely representative of INLAND EMPIRE, a sound tapestry that’s as dark and intractible as the film itself. Lynch has clearly enjoyed experimenting with pop this year, but it’s in territory like this that he’s clearly most adept and at home, creating some of the best and most telling dark ambient ever made. [DavidLynch.com]

30 | Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia
Finding love has clearly had a wonderful creative impact on Patrick Wolf. There’s an audible spring-in-the-step on many of the songs, such as “Time of my Life” (with some stylistic echoes of Florence), “Together” and “The Falcons”, intermingled with elements of electropop, a broad palette of experimental sounds, and assorted mannerisms—both synth and vocal—that evoke the 1980s. The standout track, though, is “House”, a song celebrating that most prosaic and profound of things, setting up home with a loved one: “I love that here you live with me/Gives me the greatest peace I’ve ever known”—in both style and sentiment, this song is all glory. [Amazon | iTunes]

29 | Roly Porter – Aftertime
i’ve been little interested in Roly Porter’s work as one half of Vex’d, but this, his first solo album, is something else. Porter revels in his own aspirations; ejecting beats, but without betraying his bass-fuelled history, he’s drawn on a welter of hitherto untapped resources to forge Aftertime. The spectrum of music it covers is courageously broad, encompassing harsh noise, lush chords and intimate melodies (featuring the wonderful ondes Martenot). Despite its novelty in Porter’s output, there’s nothing about this album that feels experimental; there’s a confidence throughout that makes each track utterly compelling. [Amazon | iTunes]

28 | Braids – Native Speaker
i’m regularly impressed by music from Canada, and Braids are the latest. Their first album came out at the start of the year, and i’ve been returning to it constantly; their spritely brand of art rock is imaginative and uplifting, aided in no small part by Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s ever-dominant vocals. The songs are rich and substantial (most are 7-8 minutes’ duration), characterised by colourful and unexpected arrangements that serve only to propel the narrative. Standout tracks are “Plath Heart” , which both lyrically and vocally bears strong similarities to Joanna Newsom, and “Lammicken”, a brooding number fixed above a softly pounding beat; its final explosion is fantastic. [Amazon | iTunes]

27 | Deerhoof – Deerhoof vs. Evil
How on earth do Deerhoof do it? The similarities from album to album seem to grow ever more tenuous yet Deerhoof’s music is recognisable in a heartbeat. This short album is as quirky as ever; it gets off to a slow start, but many of the songs are among their best. “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” unites playful verses with an overdrive chorus (practically destroying Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals), “Must Fight Current” is delightfully skew-whiff lazy lounge music, while “I Did Crimes For You” effects the guise of relatively straightforward indie rock, but keeps getting pulled off course. It’s all beautifully leftfield. [Norman Records | iTunes]

26 | Talvihorros – Descent Into Delta
Ben Chatwin’s music has been growing in maturity for the last few years (his 2010 album Music in Four Movements featured in my best album list last year), and Descent Into Delta is his finest creation. The guitar remains his primary sound source but it becomes highly plastic, transformed into new forms that lose sight of their origin. Supplemented here by (in Chatwin’s words) “organ, harmonium, mandolin, bells, synthesizer and waves of electronic static”, the five tracks show some influence of Aidan Baker in their structure and focus, but Chatwin’s sound is entirely his own. Descent Into Delta inhabits a somewhat amphibious and claustrophobic soundworld, but Chatwin fills it with wonders. [Bandcamp]

25 | Christopher William Anderson – Moskenstraumen
Having abandoned his previous moniker Operations, Chris Anderson has struck out in 2011 under his own name. Moskenstraumen is his first release, and the physical edition demonstrates Anderson’s deep love of design, coming in an intricately hand-made case with off-kilter concentric circles. They’re an abstract depiction of the whirlpools in the title and Anderson’s music explores them further, opening with “An End to Calm”, a track that gradually draws in and envelops the listener at its centre. The notion of maelstrom continues throughout, and while that inevitably leads to music with a noisy demeanour, it also encounters some lovely softer episodes. [Bandcamp]

24 | Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place
While the majority of ambient music has sacrificed the creative spark in favour of dry repetition or hollow paralysis, Mathieu’s music continues to demonstrate it’s a genre with prospects. Despite the title, there’s little actual stasis in Mathieu’s textures, which move and evolve with glacial speed and grace. It lacks pretention too, Mathieu deliberately accentuating the artifice of creation by making all but one of the track durations exactly 10 minutes long (the other is 20). The territory is pretty warm and familiar, but the slow, constant flux of its combination of ambient, drone and noise elements is fascinating. [Norman Records | iTunes]

23 | Frank Zappa – Feeding The Monkies At Ma Maison
For nearly two decades i’ve been in awe of the final album Frank Zappa released prior to his death, Civilization Phaze III; this release of five synclavier pieces augments that experience, containing nascent versions of some of that material. “Buffalo Voice” is effectively a stripped-down version of the one on CPIII, and what it lacks in immersiveness it gains in the clarity it affords to the inner workings of Zappa’s counterpoint; it’s a beautiful track anyway, and being heard like this does it no harm at all. As for the rest, “Secular Humanism” isn’t quite so effective as its later incarnation, but the remaining three pieces—which effectively fall between CPIII and the earlier Jazz from Hell—are splendid; despite its brevity, “Worms from Hell” is perhaps the most effective, its semi-chaotic material sounding all the more wild compacted into just 5½ minutes. [Barfko-Swill]

22 | Leyland Kirby – Intrigue & Stuff Volume 2
Intrigue & Stuff is an ongoing series begun in 2011, which to date has three volumes. Volume 2 features just four tracks, but they draw heavily on Kirby’s formidably-refined technique of grinding down to the essence of a sound. The title of “Eventually, it eats your lungs” bespeaks disease, and everything about its music is encrusted and weighed down with sonic infection, out of which a voice struggles to sing—it’s definitely one of Kirby’s strongest and most moving pieces. But even this is superceded by the final track “Complex expedition”, a 20-minute foray into entirely new hauntological waters, the omnipresent hiss and slithering bass providing the framework for a procession of analogue synth ideas. Kirby practically invented hauntology, and to hear him re-inventing it in such dazzling fashion is exhilarating. [JunoRecords | Digital download only available to subscribers]

21 | Celer – Noctilucent Clouds
Reviewed in August, this is Celer at their best, creating the most subtle of ambient soundworlds. Back then, i alluded to the music of Feldman, and that still seems the most appropriate analogy; barely audible a lot of the time, barely moving the rest of it, music rarely gets as intense or focused as this. To an extent, it suffers being broken into three arbitrary tracks, but at the same time duration becomes practically meaningless in music of this kind—one could almost listen forever. As the number of Celer releases asymptotically approaches absurdity, distinctions between many of the albums become harder to find; all the more reason then to celebrate Noctilucent Clouds which, both within Celer’s output and in ambient music generally, is unique. [Bandcamp]

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Proms 2010: Cage, Cardew, Skempton and Feldman

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals | 10 Comments

A few hours after the bizarre final notes of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 4 had faded away, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra came to the Royal Albert Hall to present the Proms with a late-night performance of rather more experimental fare.

They began with one of John Cage‘s most important early works, the percussion sextet First Construction (in Metal). The word ‘construction’ couldn’t be more apt; Cage really went to town on the structure of the work, all of it based around the proportions 4 : 3 : 2 : 3 : 4. Composed in 1939, it would be another decade before Cage would begin his written dialogue with Boulez, but such scrupulous, numerically-based structures foreshadow what would become central to the French composer’s own compositional preoccupations. For all their intricacy, however, First Construction‘s structuralisations are not particularly audible, not that this militates against the work in any significant way. The instrumentation is so colourful, their deployment so brash and fanciful, that it’s simply a non-stop joy to behold, moving from passages of mechanised regularity to more rhythmically obscure material, where the pulse is harder to perceive. What’s most striking, though, is how fresh it continues to sound: 71 years young. Read more

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HCMF 2008: Markus Trunk, Richard Barrett, John Cage

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Returning to the (more recent) archives, here are some interesting works taking a look back at the 2008 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Markus Trunk‘s Parhelion is most striking for its extreme delicacy; after a while, the prominent celesta actually starts to sound loud. The material appears as though formed from gas, its opening textures swiftly dissipating into soft whisps of chord that engage and beguile the ear. This sort of ostensible simplicity requires its own kind of virtuosity—a single note played out of place, or too loudly, would irrevocably rupture its surface—and Apartment House deliver Trunk’s vision with flawless clarity. There really isn’t enough music like this around at the moment. Trunk’s music also featured in the hands of plus-minus ensemble, who performed Raw Rows. At first, it seems to bears no resemblance to the other work, being a highly rhythmic working out of scalic patterns. In its own way, though, it ploughs an equally ascetic, single-minded furrow, the scales gradually being stretched out to the point where every note becomes a minutely significant event. This is material that, again, requires the players to demonstrate virtuosity of time and coordination in order for these sparse, staccato notes to be perfectly synchronised—it’s exciting that music of this kind should be simultaneously so simple and so complex. Read more

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Cut and Splice 2005: John Cage, Yasunao Tone, Signal (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, beginning with the archetypal cut and splice work, John Cage‘s Williams Mix. The piece sounds as wonderfully kaleidoscopic as ever, its fast-edit approach causing much the same effect as 4’33”, rendering no sound incongruous, and its all-too-brief duration still surprisingly modern after more than 50 years. In Paramedia-Centripetal by Japanese composer Yasunao Tone, the music emanates from Tone’s ‘performance’ on a graphics tablet of a number of calligraphic symbols, and i suspect this was more engaging to witness than it is merely to listen to; bereft of visuals, the material itches frenetically throughout, with occasional similarities to the sharp juxtapositions of Cage’s piece (and towards the end, to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango), but ever with the sense that something important was missing. Indeed, after a while, the comparative similarity of the material coupled to its relatively narrow pitch range (deep bass sounds are virtually non-existent), and lengthy duration (almost half an hour) lend the piece a dull, even irritating quality.

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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