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Morton Feldman – Bass Clarinet and Percussion

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | 4 Comments

As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline and restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focused (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.

Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet and the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre and technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch and octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in and out with rounded edges. 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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Steve Reich – Triple Quartet (UK Première) & Different Trains; Conlon Nancarrow – String Quartet

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Back in October, i marked George Crumb’s birthday exploring a performance of his seminal work Black Angels, given by The Smith Quartet. That performance was part of a concert devoted to American music, and it makes sense to explore the remaining pieces. The concert, which took place at the Cheltenham Music Festival on 11 July 2001, opened with the UK première of Steve Reich‘s Triple Quartet. Even relatively blunt-eyed readers of 5:4 may have noticed the paucity of discussion about minimalism on these pages, and that’s no accident; it’s a generalisation, to be sure, and there are many exceptions, but for the most part minimalism leaves me very cold indeed. Yet despite his more recent compositional catastrophes—the less said about WTC 9/11 the better—Reich’s kind of minimalism impresses more than most.

His Triple Quartet is so named for the way two prerecorded string quartets are superposed upon a live quartet (alternatively, it can be performed by 12 live musicians). The triple idea extends to the work’s structure, being in three movements that adhere to the age-old convention fast-slow-fast. The outer movements are essentially the same idea explored in a slightly different way; a harmonic progression of four minor chords (Bm, Dm, Fm and G?m — Reich calls them “dominant” chords but without conventional tonality that term is meaningless) that underpin rapid rhythmic material. In the first movement, there’s much overlapping of these chords, but the changes become increasingly abrupt, and by the last movement, driven on by the rhythmic writing, these chords fly past very quickly indeed. The slow central movement is much more static, both rhythmically and harmonically, focused on and around the B minor chord alone. Both of the faster movements feature material of a more lyrical nature, with a kind of folk-like plangency, and this comes to the fore in the middle movement, made both more poignant and potent by the abrupt halt in the tempo and the stronger sense of counterpoint. This is what makes the Triple Quartet worth hearing; despite the intensity of this slow episode making the outer movements seem even more ephemeral and arbitrary—a kind of empty energy—the music’s sudden switch to oscillations around a fixed point is rather mesmerising. But make no mistake, the slow movement is most definitely the meat in this sandwich. Read more

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George Crumb – Black Angels

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries | 3 Comments

Today is the 82nd birthday of one of my favourite composers, George Crumb. To mark the occasion, here’s a recording of a performance of one of his most well-known and loved pieces, the great and formidable string quartet Black Angels, which received its first performance 41 years ago yesterday (hmm, 82 and 41; Crumb would no doubt approve of the numeric connection). Completed in 1970, Crumb subtitled the work “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, and the tone throughout is a profoundly troubled one; Crumb hints at an explanation in an inscription in the score—”in tempore belli” (“in time of war”)—referencing the Vietnam War, and it’s that subject matter, together with allusions to Penderecki’s seminal Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima that form the core of the work. The bedrock is structured with Crumb’s trademark fastidiousness and rigour, in which the numbers 7 and 13 are fundamental. Black Angels comprises 13 short sections, grouped into three parts that parallel the Christian notions of falling from grace (Departure), concomitant spiritual poverty (Absence) and subsequent redemption (Return). Throughout, the quartet is amplified, and are required to do very much more than merely play their string instruments. Alongside extended techniques—many of which are commonplace today but were novel at the time—Crumb employs the most imaginative methods to obtain specific timbral colours and effects. Read more

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Proms 2011: Marc-André Dalbavie & Elliott Carter – Flute Concertos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening’s Prom concert brought not one but two flute concertos, performed by Swiss virtuoso Emmanuel Pahud, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, again under Thierry Fischer’s direction. The two pieces are nearly five and three years old respectively, the first from Marc-André Dalbavie, who turned 50 earlier this year, the second (heard here in its UK première) from Elliott Carter, who will be a staggering 103 years old in December. Despite first appearances, there are commonalities between the two works. Both eschew the contemporary practice of opting for descriptive names; the bald title Flute Concerto has connotations of its own, of course, but nonetheless suggests that deeply programmatic content is not the order of the day. To that end, both also place greatest importance on the surface of the music, inviting the listener first and foremost to place their focus on its undulations. But there the similarities end. Read more

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Proms 2008: Steven Stucky – Rhapsodies (World Première)

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In seven days’ time, the 2011 Proms season will be upon us, bringing with it a welter of new music. This year’s season promises no fewer than 12 world premières and eight UK premières, plus four ludicrously-titled “London premières”; once again, they’ll all be featured on 5:4, alongside one or two other interesting pieces. While the anticipation mounts, here’s one of the new works premièred in 2008’s Proms season, Rhapsodies by US composer Steven Stucky. It received its first performance on 28 August by the New York Philharmonic (in their first visit to the Proms), directed by Lorin Maazel.

In some ways, Rhapsodies revolves around the woodwind; a solo flute begins the work, hopping restlessly at altitude, its appassionato material gradually accreting with the addition of the rest of the section. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a stylised dawn chorus, lightly punctuated by soft pizzicati and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bells. The cor anglais is the first instrument to be given melodic prominence, provoking energetic interjections from the muted brass, which eventually shift the piece in a slightly different direction, and usher in the upper strings. Throughout all of this, melody is literally everywhere, but the relentless intensity results in a rather delirious kind of texture music, the ear unable to stay focused for more than a couple of moments on any particular line. A little under halfway through, the brass present an idea that holds things back for a while. As this dissipates, the strings finally come to the fore in an extended melody, backed up with spritely woodwind staccati beyond, reinforced by more distant bells. Read more

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BBC Philharmonic – Music from Blue Velvet & Twin Peaks

Posted on by 5:4 in Movies | 1 Comment

This evening the BBC Philharmonic gave a concert from their swanky new home at MediaCity in Salford, dedicated to film music, conducted by Robert Ziegler and and hosted by the superlative film critic Mark Kermode. Towards the end of the concert, the orchestra performed three pieces from the films of David Lynch. The first was an arrangement of the Julee Cruise song ‘Mysteries of Love’ (heard in Blue Velvet), in which a solo horn took the vocal line, and it was performed to absolute perfection. Then came Blue Velvet‘s Main Title, which was nice, but has always struck me as a bit of an inconsequential piece. The real highlight, though, was Angelo Badalamenti‘s theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; i’ve already talked about this brilliant piece in my podcast, so i won’t say anything further, except that the BBC Philharmonic’s rendition was outstanding. A rather nicely-timed postscript to this morning’s podcast.

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Daniel Kellogg – Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (UK Première)

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Last autumn, on 27 November, at a lunchtime concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, the renowned Takacs Quartet gave the UK Première of the American composer Daniel Kellogg‘s Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. As that title suggests, the piece draws on material from Schubert’s quartet, specifically the theme used as the basis for the second movement.

It begins with great slowness, presenting a chromatic, descending idea that has a tendency to end in emphatic perfect fifths. It’s a plaintive opening, only gradually hinting at material from Death and the Maiden; Kellogg allows these initial dabs of sonic stuff to slide around like beads of mercury, occasionally meeting and momentarily coalescing into something recognisable—Schubert’s first chord, for example, materialises only to vanish away again immediately. Eventually, the quartet makes an overtly lyrical statement, which becomes the cue for a launch into denser material and more aggressive interplay. There’s a sense here of struggle, of grinding away at something mundane, prosaic, before another abrupt shift, now into a more rhythmically driving section. Skimming the surface, the contours of Schubert’s melody now become apparent, and later, the well-known chord sequence is heard loud and clear, while the music’s grip on tonality wavers disconcertingly. Read more

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Vale of Glamorgan Festival: World Premières by Arvo Pärt and Arlene Sierra

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On 9 September, a concert given at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, was for the most part concerned with the music of Arvo Pärt, featuring a new work commissioned by the festival, In Spe for wind quintet and strings. It’s a short piece, in which the winds take precedence at first: horn, oboe and bassoon take turns stating the work’s fundamental idea. The rest of the work is essentially a series of what E. E. Cummings might have called “nonvariations” on that theme; the melody is draped in constantly changing decoration, the voice moving between registers, inversions and retrogrades adding what little spice there is to be gleaned from Pärt’s agonisingly constricted use of material and harmony. Surprisingly, it all feels terribly technical; while the temptation with so much of Pärt’s music is simply to drift, switched off and blissed out, on the surface, i found myself pulled under during In Spe, staring at what lay beneath; i don’t think this is due purely to the paucity of invention on display in the work; Howard Skempton’s Lento goes round in even more demonstrably regular circles for much of its duration, but there the result is hypnotic and entirely convincing. Somehow, the material here all feels terribly workaday, almost like an exercise; unfortunately, as neither the inner workings nor their surface sheen are that interesting, this militates against In Spe, enfeebling it, even in its brief attempts at more dynamic strength. Arvo Pärt’s fans will be delighted; all the ‘tintinnabuli’ stuff is present and correct, and the piece presents them with absolutely nothing unfamiliar, nothing to think about. Read more

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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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Proms 2010: Stephen Montague – Wilful Chants (World Première) plus Takemitsu

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A world première from Stephen Montague is always an exciting prospect; while hardly an avant-garde figure, he’s highly unpredictable, and one imagines neither the BBC nor the audience could have envisaged what Montague would ultimately present them with in his new work Wilful Chants, given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus with London Brass and O Duo, on 8 August. The work states its intentions immediately, opening with a hectic maelstrom of vocal sounds including half-whispered words, rolled ‘r’s, loud chanting, glissandos, whistles, guttural grunts and the like. The cumulative effect, driven along by a brisk pulse, is entrancing, even hypnotic, the ear constantly pulled left and right, by no means making out the filigree of details (which is hardly the point), but simply trying to hold on for the ride. A climax is reached, and things shift into pitched territory, the brass making uncanny, muted oscillations that suddenly bloom as a dark chorale, into which the choir is swiftly drawn, although remaining in the middleground at this point. A more simplistic chorale follows, sounding distinctly eastern-European; the occasionally half-heard brass oscillations keep things from becoming too conventional or familiar, however, and as the resultant high point appears to be becoming all too generic, it pulls itself apart before getting too portentous, dissolving in a new plethora of noises, accompanied by percussive clatterings. And in no time at all, the conventional trappings are long forgotten as merry mayhem breaks out everywhere, the two elements—noise and song—wonderfully blended in a thrilling street party of a finale. Read more

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Celer – Brittle, Fountain Glider, Poulaine

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My admiration for the music of Celer has grown seemingly exponentially since my first encounter with their work last year, in the form of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann (subsequently highly-placed in my Best Albums of 2008). The retrospective/obituary that i wrote back in July was a first attempt to say something meaningful about their illustrious output, although i was and remain acutely aware that it barely scratched the surface. In the three months that have passed since that fateful time, as many full-length albums have been released, with yet more announced and coming soon.

All three assume Celer’s most demanding shape, lengthy solitary tracks, the first of which, Brittle, is the longest of all, its single span lasting over 74 minutes. Its title is complemented by the track’s title of ‘Eustress’, a word that embodies the opposite of ‘distress’, referring to forms of stress from which we obtain positive effects. A short essay accompanies the CD, explicating Celer’s intentions in bringing these two evocative words, ‘brittle’ and ‘eustress’ together. And it’s extremely tempting, reading the words that refer to their aim “to demonstrate a feeling of continuation through what sometimes seems like a fragile existence”, immediately to draw connections to Dani Baquet-Long’s sudden death; but this music was obviously made before her passing, and while at the moment it cannot fail to be heard in the wake of that tragedy, it would be a facile mistake to allow that to obfuscate the music contained in Brittle, still less to define it. Celer’s music has sufficient depth and substance to stand on its own two feet, without the need for imposed emotional crutches, despite how keen one may be to impose them; i prefer to allow the music to communicate on its own terms. Read more

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Roads less travelled: Benn Jordan – Louisiana Mourning

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Out this week is the latest release from Benn Jordan, better known as The Flashbulb. It’s high time Jordan’s music was featured on here, as he’s nothing short of a marvel, his music touching on a wide variety of styles, every one of which seems to turn to gold in his hands. In many ways, he has to draw comparisons with Hecq (another Ben, about whom i wrote here), flitting as he also does between the crystalline intricacies of IDM and the warm shroud of ambient.

But there’s a wealth of other inspirations at work in Jordan’s music, and this is palpably obvious in his new 21-minute EP, Louisiana Mourning. Prior to the release Jordan had hinted on his website that ambient and bluegrass would be the defining characteristics of this release, and to some extent that’s borne out in the music. “I” (the titles simply use Roman numerals) is an ambivalent opener, laden with rapid guitar picking early on, before giving way to dreamy tonal waves. “II” immediately returns to fast guitar figurations, whereupon violinist Greg Hirte joins in with a lovely folk-inspired melody, inflected with poignant minor chord shifts; midway, the piano takes over, leading to the music again dissipating into ambience. It’s not the first time Jordan has subdivided a single track into markedly different sections (another similarity to Hecq), and here it’s a highly effective device, creating soft, luscious codettas that contrast well with the sharp hectic twanging of the guitar. 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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Death and transfiguration: the music of Celer

Posted on by 5:4 in Commemorations, Featured Artists | 2 Comments

A little over a week ago, i began writing a post. Here’s how it began…

At the close of 2008, when i posted my favourite albums of the year, i mentioned that the list was necessarily provisional. Six months and a considerable amount of listening later, i’ve now realised there’s one group that is conspicuous by their absence. At least, they were partially present, in the brief mention i made of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann that found itself at no. 9 in my top 40 of the year’s releases. They are Celer, a duo made up of husband and wife Dani Baquet-Long and Will Long.

A couple of days after writing those words, tragedy struck: Dani died, following a sudden heart failure. Thus, Will has lost his wife and musical collaborator, and we’ve all lost a fascinating, highly creative and imaginative artist. i recently established contact with Will and Dani, and had hoped to get to know them both a little better, and conduct an interview with them soon for 5:4. So, in the wake of Dani’s abrupt passing, i feel both immense sadness and profound disappointment. As ever, though, the music lives on, serving as an infinitely more eloquent eulogy and testament than words ever could. It’s in that spirit, then, that i’m continuing to write this post.

Celer have been actively releasing their work since 2004, five years that have produced a simply astounding amount of music: no fewer than 37 releases, most of which are full-length albums, alongside a smattering of shorter EPs. But quality and quantity are difficult bed-fellows, which makes it all the more remarkable that so much of Celer’s output is so interesting and engaging. After two false starts—listening to Mesoscaphe last year and a little release in February—i’ve spent the last month listening to almost nothing other than their music, and a dizzying experience it’s been. Where to begin… Read more

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“a hush, almost sacred”: Steve Peters – Here-ings

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As will have been obvious from my two “Best of” posts at the end of last year (here and here), i’m very taken with the work of sound artist Steve Peters. i’ve been spending a lot of time with his work of late, and one release has particularly impressed me in all sorts of ways. Peters is clearly a composer with both an acutely sensitive ear as well as an innate sensibility to the contexts in which sound occurs; nowhere is this better illustrated than in Here-ings.

Subtitled ‘a sonic geohistory’, Here-ings takes the relatively unusual form of a book and CD, the former illuminating the contents of the latter through a combination of prose and poetry (also by Peters), plus photographs contributed by Margot Geist. Essentially, the project consisted of Steve Peters spending a great deal of time at a site in New Mexico called The Land, set aside for site-specific art that engages with the environment surrounding it. Feeling that he would prefer to let the place ‘speak for itself’ rather than asserting his own creative impulse, over the course of a year, Peters made a series of hour-long field recordings at The Land, each occupying a different hour of the day, totalling 24 hours of material. Furthermore, each hour was recorded at a different location within The Land, so his recordings succinctly capture the entirety of The Land, throughout a year, conflated into a day’s worth of sound. Read more

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Quixotic risks: Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

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The week before last saw the release of Deerhoof’s new album, Offend Maggie. After the undiluted artistry and infectiousness of 2007’s Friend Opportunity, this was a definite highlight in the calendar, made all the more tantalising by the performance of half of the songs at their concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park back in July. i have to confess that the first listening was a real disappointment, and i feel sure this is because i was quietly hoping for “Friend Opportunity II”. From the outset, there’s a much more stripped away approach, which gives the songs a delicate, less rich texture than those of its predecessor. The opener, ‘The Tears and Music of Love’, for example, sounds for a while at least as though it could have been recorded in a garage, its drums sounding tinny, lacking weight. Although it develops into something more solid, this initially came as something of a shock, even more so when it leads into the light and playful—but very straightforward, even conventional—rhythms and structure of ‘Chandelier Searchlight’. All very catchy, but not the all-enthralling encounter i was anticipating.

It’s not until ‘Buck and Judy’ that they present something approximating familiar Deerhoof territory, piquant whiffs of distortion permeating its laidback rock trappings. The balance of elements is superb, as is the control over the song’s unfolding, which is given a certain leeway to meander, especially two-thirds of the way through; this kind of elastic structure is one of Deerhoof’s most interesting traits. Delicacy is laid aside in ‘Snoopy Waves’, which is dense to the point of being heady; a snippet of lyrics floating in an intoxicating blend of buzzing bass and cutting guitar motifs. It’s not surprising they don’t pursue instrumental tracks more often, as Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals have become so indispensable a part of Deerhoof’s signature sound, but tracks like this one hint at how interesting these would be, far more so than the majority of today’s dull instrumental post-rock offerings. Read more

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Live in Prospect Park: Metropolis Ensemble and Deerhoof

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i’m surprised there’s not more comment on the web about the recent concert given jointly by the Metropolis Ensemble and Deerhoof, which took place in July in Brooklyn as part of the Wordless Music series. This had been hyped up a fair bit beforehand, partly because it was bringing together two groups who have a very modern outlook, but mostly because it featured a new take on The Rite of Spring. WNYC broadcast the entire concert online; surprisingly, no-one seems to have recorded it, so links to my own recording are below. Also, some excellent photos from the concert can be seen at WNYC’s Flickr page. Now, to the music…

Metropolis Ensemble’s hour-long half of the concert began with Two-Part Belief by composer Ricardo Romaneiro, for soprano and electronics. From a gently flamboyant opening, there’s an interesting initial interplay between the electronics and the powerful melodic line, delivered superbly by soprano Hila Plitmann, who is at times required to soar extremely high. The relationship quickly becomes unclear, however, and at times the electronics seem hell-bent on undermining the soprano line, which surely isn’t the intention. At best, the electronics create an evocative, shifting backdrop for the soloist, although this is often disrupted by its gestural quality. Overall, there’s something rather primitive about the electronics’ contribution in this piece; the composer’s enthusiasm is perfectly evident (and this does, actually, go some way to covering some—not a multitude—of his sins), as is his enjoyment of the sounds he’s creating; what’s lacking is real imagination. The brass make strangely occasional contributions, and it’s a huge shame they weren’t involved throughout, as the texture at these moments is truly exciting and gives a hint of what might have been. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Implex Grace – a searing demonstration of ambient noise

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i said before that there’s more to ambient than washes of sound, but of course this kind of texture is, for better or (more often) worse, very closely associated with it. Thankfully, having spent too many years trapped in the saccharine world of (God help us) “chillout” music, ambient’s potential for drift has grown up into something very much more mature and meaningful. In no small part, it has been affected by what some might regard as its nemesis: noise. It might be fairer to call the constructions found in noise walls of sound rather than washes, but these two extremes have been drawn together to forge something utterly new. i suspect, like most ostensible “opposites”, they’ve had more in common than was immediately apparent; both noise and ambient tend to place emphasis on broad gestures within long durational expanses; both tend to occupy dynamic extremes; and, of course, like any extreme, both have fallen prey to the moronic mumblings of the talentless who have purloined the style in the hope it might bestow upon them the illusion of something approximating ability. As a texture, noise is unavoidable, so for it to lend anything of value to ambient, it is going to need to be softened and tenderised, in order to retain some semblance of Brian Eno’s “ignorability” (the inability of the listener to “ignore” noise (in Eno’s sense of the word), perhaps explains why poor music in that genre is so incredibly irritating, whereas poor ambient is a mild irritation at best).

An interesting blend of these worlds can be heard in the music of Michael Perry Goodman, otherwise known as Implex Grace. He caught my attention a couple of months back when his self-styled “debut release”, Through Luminescent Passages I, became available as a free download. i say “self-styled”, because in truth there’s been a number of minor self-releases dating back to 2004 (they can all be streamed via the vibr website; link below); nonetheless, this album is his most ambitious release to date, worthy of being regarded as his “Opus 1”. Even before listening, the track titles are highly suggestive: “Gorgeous Pale Light”, “Starlight: A Distant Shimmering Particle”, “Beyond The Cosmic Gates”; nonetheless, many are the composers who have made astronomical connections to their work, only for it to fail entirely to live up to such a lofty association; vivid titles like these are best approached with caution. But it’s immediately clear that Implex Grace is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill composer. and it’s clear too that the radiance alluded to in those titles is not merely present, but omnipresent, permeating—no, saturating—the music with incandescence, often composed in roughly equal parts of ambience and noise. “Twilight: Diamond In The Sky” is an exercise in simplicity: a delicate fragment of material (the “diamond”?) is placed within a soft harmonic bath (the “sky”?), wherein it loops merrily away, glitching here and there; it’s as though we’re watching it slowly draw nearer to us, allowed a few precious moments of closeness, before it passes us back into the beyond. “Gorgeous Pale Light” is a tough title to live up to, but the music succeeds, presenting a sonic landscape that feels by turns autumnal and/or suffused with rain (a different kind of saturation). Even longer than the first track, it opens up the scope of the album, widening the horizons still further; it’s an epic pronouncement, almost a statement of intent. Read more

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The ambient tradition: John Hudak and the infinitesimal writ large

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In general, composers of ambient—no doubt due to the fact that as well as being “interesting” it should also be “ignorable”—tend to fashion their music at the quieter end of the dynamic continuum. And in the farthest reaches of the quiet, his music looking at the natural world as through a microscope, is John Hudak. His name has become synonymous with an extreme form of microsound, exploring the the gentle repetitions of noises that either bypass our attention or—even more remarkably—exist beneath the threshold of human hearing. In his own words, his work “focuses on the rhythms and melodies that exist in our daily aural environments. These sounds usually remain hidden, as we tend to overlook their musical qualities; or, their musical qualities are obscured through mixture with other sounds”. Hudak subjects his field recordings of these unheard sources to digital manipulation, resulting in finely honed sonic vistas that are familiar and organic, yet achingly strange.

All of his works are breathtaking, and one could write for hours about any of them; his imagination—both in terms of the origins of his material, and also what he then does with those sounds—is simply astonishing. Even before one actually hears the music, just a cursory amount of research into what one is about to hear results in a breathless, tantalising excitement about the very ideas themselves. Take Pond, for example, where microphones are placed in—of course—a pond, and the piece explores the miniscule noises of underwater insects. The result is utterly unworldly, truly alien, like muted crotales delicately ringing within a claustrophobic soup. Pond lasts just over an hour, and at first i confess i felt this was too long; but having spent longer with his work, and coming to understand its place within what i have called the “ambient tradition”, i no longer feel this reservation. Even more astounding is his collaboration with Stephen Mathieu, Pieces of Winter. Surely among the quietest pieces ever created (positively defining microsound), Hudak’s contributions originate in a contact microphone encased in snow that has solidified overnight into ice, which then records the infinitesimal sounds of snowflakes landing on the frozen surface. Who else would even think of an idea like that?! While Mathieu’s contributions (both the sources and what he does with them) are more recognisable and tangible, Hudak’s are once again entirely unlike anything else; the opening track, “01”, sounds relatively naturalistic—a wonderfully enclosed sensation (made better still through headphones)—while “Winter Garden” is a more impressionistic take; in a manner similar to Pond, the minute impacts are now writ large, resembling sharp but delicate collisions of glass bells. Read more

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