Zbigniew Karkowski

Mixtape #57 : Best Albums of 2019

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Happy New Year!

i want to start this year by expressing my heartfelt thanks to all of you who have followed and supported 5:4 in the last year, particularly my delectable band of Patrons. Hot on the heels of my Best Albums of 2019 list, i’m beginning 2020 with the usual mixtape comprising selections from each of those 40 albums. It rather nicely encapsulates another year of breathtaking musical imagination and ingenuity, exploring a typically eclectic range of styles, attitudes and aesthetics.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with the start time for each track in the mix; links to obtain the music can be found in the previous two days’ articles. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded or streamed. Read more

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Best Albums of 2019 (Part 2)

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Here they are, then, the best of the best albums that have brought untold levels of wonderment into my ears and mind throughout this year. i cannot recommend them highly enough – this is music at its most literally essential.

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Zbigniew Karkowski – Encumbrance

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In recent years, one of the most vividly memorable Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals was 2017, when the work of Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski was prominently featured. Huddersfield is in fact the only place in the UK that i’ve ever had the opportunity to experience Karkowski’s music performed live, which suggests everywhere else is either too ignorant or – more likely – too timid to consider programming it. Karkowski’s music is not necessarily intimidating, though his radical, implacable embracing of extremes perhaps makes his music more likely than most to send certain portions of the audience scrambling for the exit.

One of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski for choir and electronics. The piece seriously bowled me over, so i was excited to learn that a CD of Encumbrance has recently been issued on the Polish label Bôłt. Better still, the disc includes two performances of the work, which may seem peculiar but turns out to be extremely revealing about which aspects of the music are fixed and which are variable. The performances, which date from 2014 and 2016, are again given by the Gęba Vocal Ensemble, with the electronics realised by Wolfram in the earlier recording and Constantin Popp in the latter. Read more

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Free internet music: Zbigniew Karkowski

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One of my absolute favourites at the most extreme end of pretty much all musical continua is Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski. Karkowski died just over five years ago, and digesting his legacy is something i’ve been attempting to do since his passing. While there are plenty of available recordings of his work, concert performances in the UK are exceedingly rare. Graham McKenzie prominently featured his work at HCMF in 2015 and 2017, and both occasions served as a marvellous demonstration of the unique combination of intricate subtlety and enormous overload that typify Karkowski’s music. Performances of Karkowski easily rank among the most beautiful and overwhelming musical experiences i’ve ever had, and one can only hope that similarly open-minded concert curators might programme his work more often in future.

Live in Lyon is an unedited 23-minute recording of one of Karkowski’s performances. The fact that it’s unedited is significant, as it highlights from time to time the way in which Karkowski wrangled with both the technology and the sound materials themselves, and the occasional dropouts and glitches that occur in no way sound like ‘mistakes’ but only add to the overall effect of the performance. Discussing Karkowski’s music to an extent necessitates looking broadly rather than at minutiae. It tends to unfold slowly, generally favouring evolution and transformation rather than abrupt cuts and shifts, and an important factor in engaging with it is the way one gradually becomes familiar with its discrete sound elements, a familiarity that Karkowski often makes crushingly intimate. Read more

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Mixtape #49 : Untitled

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For the latest 5:4 mixtape, i’ve turned my attention to that most elusive of artistic statements, the untitled work. When i set out to assemble a shortlist of pieces in my library that had adopted the word ‘untitled’, it wasn’t immediately obvious what i’d find. Yet, with one or two exceptions and to varying extents, untitled tracks tended to yield a very particular type of soundworld: generally dark and/or monochrome in terms of their tone, tenor or palette, with slow, patient use and deployment of sound, often including extended periods of quietness, overall lending the music a pensive, deliberate quality. Above all, i found these pieces to be music highly abstract in character, and while use of the word ‘untitled’ can often provoke frustration when we encounter it in works of art (“doesn’t the artist know what they’re trying to say?”), the intangibility of such music seems to strongly justify the suitability of this word. However, artists use the word ‘untitled’ in ways that are as playful and deceptive as they can be aloof and distancing, and for this mixtape i’ve therefore included not only tracks that are simply untitled but also tracks that use the word ‘untitled’ as part of a longer title as well as untitled segments of larger titled works.

In the first hour, having begun with something of a red herring by Hecq, i’ve concentrated on calmer, darker examples that tend to focus on explorations of texture, from both static and variegated perspectives. Near the centre of the mix is the unexpurgated 15-minute Untitled Drone by Aidan Baker that isn’t just the highlight of his wonderful 2009 album Blue Figures, but one of the most beautifully coruscating exercises in slow-burning ambient that i’ve ever heard. In the wake of this, in the second half i’ve explored untitled tracks that are generally brighter and more colourful, introducing more beat- and pulse-based pieces, some of which even feature vocals (a real rarity in the world of ‘untitled’ music, it seems), and more overt use of instrumental sounds, both raw and cooked.

Throughout the mix, there’s a wide temperature range demonstrated in these pieces, from the warmth (not always gentle) and/or balmy intimacy found in pieces by, among others, Subsea, Zbigniew Karkowski & Kelly ChurkoJames Clarke, Sea Oleena, Ochre, Aphex Twin and 36 to the varying forms of chilly remoteness, some of it seriously aggressive, exhibited by the likes of Noto, CD-R, AutechreHelena Tulve, Nordvargr, Lethe and Christopher McFall & Ben Fleury-Steiner. And that playfulness i mentioned before – plus a fair amount of inscrutability – can be heard manifesting particularly in tracks by Natasha Barrett, John Wall & Alex Rodgers, Marc Behrens, DJ Yo-Yo Dieting, Øyvind Torvund and John Oswald.

Ultimately, though, i don’t want to labour these descriptive terms or indeed the putative aesthetic connections i’ve been making between them, as they may belie the fact, as i said at the outset, that these are above all strikingly abstract pieces of music, and their ostensible lack of a title (if indeed that is what it is) is perhaps all that needs to be said about them.

Two-and-a-half hours of unidentified musical objects; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music (interesting to note how many of them are available free of charge: another ‘untitled’ connection…?). Due to the inherent ambiguity of some of the track titles, where relevant i’ve also included in the tracklisting the track numbers. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded via the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Mixtape #47 : Travelogue

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For my July mixtape, i’ve decided to take myself on an impromptu trip around mainland Europe. With the help of Google Maps, i’ve plotted a course that’s somewhat circuitous but which manages to take in most of the continent. Starting in Holland (I Was A Teenage Satan WorshipperRyoji Ikeda), we move down through Belgium (Autechre) and France (Andrew Liles) to the coast of Portugal (John Oswald). Coming back through Spain (Fergus KellySPC ECO) and detouring into France again (Karsten PflumZbigniew Karkowski) brings us to Monaco (John Debney), followed by a more prolongued period in Italy (Susanne SundførYelleJohn Williams). Then we head north through Switzerland (Johnny Williams) for a longer stay in Germany (The Noisettes, Cluster, Bath40, Marc Behrens), before heading south again, through the Czech Republic (White Sea), glancing off Italy one final time (Muséum) and then down to the southern reaches of Croatia (FURT plus) and Bosnia and Herzgovina (Francis Dhomont), ending up for a bit of R&R in Greece (Three Drives).

The journey through eastern and northern Europe initially takes us through Bulgaria (Brian Eno), Romania (The Noisettes) and Hungary (Alexandre Desplat), then we veer across to Austria (James Newton Howard) before heading north rapidly through Poland (Kate HavnevikJoy Division) as far as Latvia (Markus Reuter). A brief jaunt in Russia follows (Cabaret VoltaireBersarin Quartett), whereupon we head for the Nordic countries via Estonia (Velvcsze), passing through Finland (Brothomstates) before travelling across the Baltic Sea (Somatic Responses) to Sweden (Lady & Bird), Denmark (Iain ArmstrongScott Walker) and Norway (Isaiah Ceccarelli). The epilogue to the journey involves leaving the mainland, flying first to the Faroe Islands (Zinovia) and finally arriving in Iceland (J.Viewz).

At a mere two hours’ duration, the mix is one hell of a whistle-stop tour; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music: Read more

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HCMF 2017: We Spoke, London Sinfonietta + Irvine Arditti, GGR Betong

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Yesterday at HCMF was decidedly mixed. Contemporary music-making aiming to be radical, at the cutting edge, obviously involves risk. That risk in turn requires a considerable amount of trust: from commissioners and investors, stumping up the cash; from performers, committing to learn and perfect the material; from concert organisers, providing a platform and technical support; and from audiences, sacrificing money and time to engage with it. That trust was sorely tested in the afternoon concert in Phipps Hall given by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. Not too terribly in H and B by Simon Løffler, works that put so much emphasis on their visual and physical aspects – the former involving tuning forks and a machine with four rotating blades, the latter a system of pedals illuminating three lights in different combinations – that their aural content felt impoverished and vapid by comparison; all very unfortunate, but not particularly uncommon in new music concerts. Fritz Hauser‘s Schraffur was less convincing and musically rich than in its recorded version, which i reviewed early last year; i wonder whether it was seeing the gong-based rhythmic scrapings going on that rendered the effect less impressive and diminished its uncanny long-term potential (the recording, let me stress, is very striking indeed). Yet while these works merely taxed our trust – and this was absolutely no fault of We Spoke, who executed each piece superbly – it was well and truly squandered by Hanna Hartman‘s Shadow Box. Its twelve minutes of cracking open eggs and nuts and punching bags filled with air (i came to empathise with how each bag felt) was less a performance – still less music – than a crime scene in which the Emperor had his entire wardrobe nicked. i don’t think i’ve ever witnessed that trust i spoke of being not merely wasted, but egregiously exploited; if Hartman has any talent at all, precisely none of it was demonstrated in this shamefully vacuous crap. Miraculously, despite all this it was worth attending the concert to experience Cathy van Eck‘s Wings, receiving its UK première. Her work involving performers interacting with loudspeakers is always fascinating, and Wings didn’t disappoint. A ballet involving three large panels slowly being re-positioned around the space, altering the nature, effect and accumulation of feedback generated from microphones around the stage facing a single loudspeaker at the back, was wonderful, effortlessly achieving what every other work in this concert singularly failed to do, creating a perfect, seamless, mesmeric marriage of sight and sound. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Gęba Vocal Ensemble, Zwerm

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A few days ago, in relation to the (non-)performance at HCMF of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, i considered the question of what noise might be the opposite of, as a means to help defining what noise can actually be. But noise doesn’t have to be regarded as an opposite, or a polar extreme of a particular quality or characteristic, it can simply be something heard in relation to itself. i’m sure the late, great Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski would have concurred with this. His unique take on noise seems to me to have been articulated primarily in two ways, either regarding and treating it almost like a physical substance, focused upon with a laser-like intensity, or to set it up as a kind of ‘default condition’, the starting point from which – and within which – development and exploration take place. From this latter perspective (pace Shakespeare and Alex Ross) the rest is neither silence nor noise: practically speaking, there is no “rest”, noise is all there is. We use a word like ‘atmosphere’ to refer to the general mood created by a piece of music, but in Karkowski’s case it’s a much more literal atmosphere, an environment in which noise is as ubiquitous as air.

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HCMF 2015: Konus Quartett, Daniel Buess & Aleksander Gabryś, Ensemble CEPROMUSIC, Jakob Ullmann

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A feature of many of this year’s HCMF concerts has been a blurring of the distinction between pitch and noise, but the midday recital given by Swiss saxophone group Konus Quartett tilted the focus firmly back on pitch. Both works, Jürg Frey‘s Mémoire, horizon and Chiyoko SzlavnicsDuring a Lifetime (each being heard in the UK for the first time) sought to examine pitch as a constant, prevalent thing in its own right as well as an element with wider harmonic implications. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Shorts

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Being a Cotswolds lad, born and raised, i’d have to liken HCMF’s ‘Shorts’ day of free miniature concerts yesterday to a long walk over the hills, with spectacular vistas yet passing through numerous fields randomly distributed with large cowpats. In each field, you pick a direction and stick to it, with obvious consequences. In short, we all ended the day a little muckier than we’d started. Read more

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New releases: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Markus Reuter, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Arditti Quartet, Eric Craven, Audiobulb, Zbigniew Karkowski, Nordvargr, Stockhausen

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It’s a while since i’ve had a chance to survey new releases, so there’s quite a few that are overdue being highlighted. Some of them appeared on my recent Best Albums of the Year list, such as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Aerial, out on Deutsche Grammophon. As i’ve mentioned in my previous articles about Þorvaldsdóttir’s work, her overtly elemental music thrives in establishing environments where elements of certainty are both undermined and consolidated. Orchestral work Aeriality is a superbly lucid example of this, a work that seemingly keeps trying to reset itself via strong intervals like octaves, fourths and fifths, which are repeatedly overrun and infiltrated by tendrils of material, leading to fascinating passages of grey, almost blank obfuscation (a Þorvaldsdóttir fingerprint). Much of her work explores this friction between clarity and obscurity, variously weighted, and most of the works heard here begin shrouded in abstraction. But what’s so very refreshing about this is the absence of clichéd value associations: clarity here is no more positive a thing than its opposite. The interest, and it is considerable, lies in the juxtapositions and steady evolutions between states, a connotative mirror—if one wishes to see it as such—of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Icelandic heritage but just as much a liberated celebration of the primordial plasticity of sound. Read more

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Mixtape #29 : Best Albums of 2013

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A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

i want to say a big thank you to everyone who’s followed 5:4 in the last year, and especially to those of you who’ve posted comments and tweets in response. There are lots of exciting things planned for 2014, so watch this space.

In the meantime, continuing the 5:4 annual tradition, here’s the new mixtape, celebrating the music in my Best Albums of the Year list. A little something from each album, seamlessly stitched together and lasting a little under 3 hours. Enjoy!—and if you do enjoy what you hear, links to purchase the music can be found on the previous two days’ articles.

Here’s the tracklisting in full:

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Best Albums of 2013 (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 2013 to an end, here’s the final part of the best albums of the year. Go on, give your ears a treat, they deserve it. Read more

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