AMN Reviews: Maryanne Amacher – Selected Writings & Interviews [Blank Forms Editions, 398 pp.]

Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) was a sound artist whose compositions and site-specific audio installations focused attention on often-overlooked facets of aural perception. She described her installations as “sonic theater” that used features of the surrounding architecture to amplify the listener’s sensorial experience; this was an important component of her long-standing interest in what she called “perceptual geography”–the way sounds from spatially distant locations are perceived and experienced.

An exemplary work in this area was her City-Links series of site-specific sound gatherings, which were staged from 1967 to 1988. For the series, Amacher installed microphones at carefully chosen locations and transmitted the sounds they picked up via telephone link to a listening space—typically an auditorium, art gallery, or hall—where the mixed transmitted sounds and the ambient sounds of the space into which they were projected would coexist. Amacher was interested in how the separation of visual information from the audio information coming in from the remote microphones would affect perception of the sounds, and how these distant sounds would interact with, and affect, the listener’s perceptual experiences of the ambient sounds within the receiving space.

These and many of Amacher’s other projects addressing theoretical and experiential issues in sound perception were articulated extensively in her writings. Selected Writings and Interviews collects a wide range of mostly unpublished source documents covering the whole extent of a career that spanned the early 1960s to the late 2000s and that was varied enough to include studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen and George Crumb, collaborations with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and the conception of a good number of highly ambitious, large-scale works many of which, as the book amply documents, were unrealized for lack of funding or opportunity.

Thus the importance of the written record Amacher left behind. Some of the documents collected in Selected Writings and Interviews represent the only form a number of her works took. Like Duchamp’s Notes for the unfinished Large Glass, Amacher’s notes, score fragments, sketches, press release drafts, correspondence, and proposals articulate the substance of projects planned but never produced, and in the process take on the guise of works in themselves. Through them, thanks to this carefully curated, well-designed volume, we can derive a multi-dimensional picture of a complex artist with a challenging body of work that existed largely “in the gap between idea and manifestation,” as editors Amy Cimini and Bill Dietz put it in the book’s introduction.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Dana Jessen – Winter Chapel [Carrier Records 057]

Winter Chapel, an album of solo performances by new music bassoonist Dana Jessen, announces itself with a shakuahchi-like, upper register fluctuation of sound. This opening gives some idea of the rest of the music to follow on this stunning meeting of contemporary bassoon technique and physical architecture. The album was recorded this past January in Fairchild Chapel at Oberlin, where Jessen teaches contemporary music and improvisation. Jessen’s previous solo release, Carve, demonstrated the versatility of the solo bassoon; Winter Chapel continues in that vein by pushing the instrument further out to the edges of its possibilities, aided and augmented by the deeply resonant surroundings of the performance space. The space in fact becomes something of a duet partner, particularly on Part Two, where its reverberations double Jessen’s furiously cascading sheets of sound; the room not only creates the impression of a second instrument playing but also lends the bassoon’s sound the acerbic edge of a hard-played, baritone saxophone. The more reflective Part Four is an essay in phrasing and dynamics, its languidly-unspooled lines allowed to echo and die away into a thick silence. The long improvisation of Part Five, which includes delicate passages of conventional technique alongside of aggressively dense forays into extended technique, captures the spirit of the entire album in miniature. A remarkable album of disruptive beauty.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: counter)induction – Against Method [New Focus Recordings FCR278]

The chamber ensemble counter)induction, a group that has dedicated itself to the performance of new music since it came on the scene at the end of the last century, takes its name from a concept in philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s classic work Against Method, which is also the title of their latest album. Counterinduction, roughly, is a critical method of opposing a theory or concept with a counterpart drawn from outside of the target theory’s ordinary frame of reference. In practical terms it entails an embrace of critical pluralism, which seems to have been the concrete inspiration counter)induction took from it. With its selection of six diverse works by just as many composers, Against Method the album neatly encapsulates the group’s musical pluralism.

The opening track, Douglas Boyce’s The Hunt by Night, is a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano that uncoils with a spry, loping energy that recalls the spirit of Les Six. It’s an engaging lead-in, and oddly, perhaps the least “contemporary” sounding of the works represented. Kyle Bartlett’s Before for guitar, bass clarinet and cello follows and changes the atmosphere dramatically. In contrast to The Hunt by Night’s melodic continuity, Before features bursts of fragmentary lines and long tones, and makes generous use of unpitched sounds. Ein Kleines Volkslied by Alvin Singleton, originally commissioned by Bang on a Can, draws on elements of rock and jazz—Dan Lippel’s distorted electric guitar chords and Randall Zigler’s pizzicato basslines add just the right flavor—and includes a fine feature for vibraphone at its center. Jessica Meyer’s Forgiveness, the only piece on the album incorporating electronics, uses a loop pedal to transform a hymn-like solo performance by bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland into an accumulating, virtual reed ensemble. In another abrupt contrast of styles, Forgiveness is followed by Ryan Streber’s neoclassical Piano Quartet—a lushly beautiful, harmonically rich piece. The album closes with Argentinian composer Diego Tedesco’s Scherzo for guitar, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. Although billed as a musical joke—and the repeated motif of descending chromatic lines does sound like a bagful of broken toys falling down a flight of stairs—the piece makes sophisticated use of pizzicato textures from the guitar and other strings.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: George Kokkinaris – New Solo Double Bass Works by Greek Composers [s/r]

Like many double bassists working in the field of contemporary music, George Kokkinaris, a Greek bassist currently in Berlin, specializes in solo performances centered on the extraordinarily rich range of sounds, both conventional and otherwise, that the instrument can produce. And as New Solo Double Bass Works by Greek Composers demonstrates, Kokkinaris approaches this common endeavor with a voice that is recognizably his own.

New Solo Double Bass Works contains two pieces, one each from two contemporary Greek composers. The first is Study in Four Parts for Solo Double Bass (2019) by Niki Krasaki, herself a double bassist as well as a composer. The four studies are finely etched miniatures ranging in length from just over one minute to just under two-and-a-half minutes. Except for brief glissandi of harmonics at the end of the first part and beginning of the fourth part, as well as a short episode of sul ponticello bowing in the fourth part, the Study is built around lyrical motifs, some of which recur in variations at different points in the collective work, and conventional techniques. Much of the playing takes place in the lower registers, bringing out the gravitas of the instrument’s voice. It’s a well-chosen region for Kokkinaris, who has a robust low-register attack that dramatizes the grainy sound of the bow pulling across the strings.

The second piece is Alexis Porfiriadis’ Hush Little Baby for Speaking Contrabassist, also from 2019, the nearly twenty-minute length of which contrasts with the brevity of Krasaki’s suite of miniatures. Porfiriadis’ composition, an anguished commemoration of the deaths of children attempting to migrate to Europe, draws on Kokkinaris’ experience performing mixed media work involving acting and the spoken word. The score is organized around a set of extended techniques that come into play throughout the performance. This often-intense piece is as demanding to play as it is to hear; Kokkinaris’ realization is accomplished with the gestural rigor and emotional urgency that it requires.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Ingrid Laubrock – Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt [Intakt CD 355]

The strange, strangely unstable realm of dreams has fascinated and inspired artists probably since humans first began to dream, or to make art. Even if we believe they have nothing to tell us—no messages from the gods or the unconscious, or the dead—their often weird images and incongruities of mood can be a source of raw material or a dictionary of occult—as in idiomatic—significances from which to draw. Ingrid Laubrock’s aptly titled Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt, a two-CD set of compositions arranged on disc one for chamber orchestra and five soloists and on disc two for small groups, presents contemporary sounds inspired by the oneiric world. Laubrock kept a dream diary for many years; the compositions on Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt represent her way of translating into music the moods or states of mind of the dreams recorded in her diary.

The album contains five compositions, each of which is performed in two different versions, one for the chamber ensemble and one for the small group consisting of a core trio of Laubrock on tenor and soprano saxophones, Cory Smythe on quarter-tone keyboard and piano, and Sam Pluta on electronics, augmented at different times by Adam Matlock on accordion, Josh Modney on violin and Zeena Parkins on electric harp. The chamber orchestra is an eighteen-piece group of strings, reeds and brass that serves as a setting for soloists Laubrock, Pluta and Smythe as well as drummer Tom Rainey and double bassist Robert Landfermann. Laubrock wrote first for the small group, and then constructed her versions for chamber orchestra from fragments of the original versions. The versions for chamber orchestra tend to situate the five soloists as a group-within-the-group; the contrasts between their improvisations and the orchestrated passages for the ensemble capture something of the startling juxtapositions and emotional volatility of dreams. In the leaner, tightly focused context of the small group the music comes through in a particularly vivid way. The improvised sections stand out against the composed passages with a sharp clarity, while the generous use of space and variable textures and dynamics gives the soloists openings they readily exploit to create lines of timbral complexity and emotional depth.

Daniel Barbiero

Issue 5 of IM-OS Now Out

The Fall 2020 issue of IM-OS, the journal of improvised music and open scores edited by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen and Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, is now out. The issue features the scores Quintet (1976) by Stephen Montague and Punctuation (2011) by Juan Maria Solares, part 2 of the article Open Forms-Open Decisions by Alexis Porfiriadis, and a panel discussion on open scores featuring Joe Scarffe, Ruedi Debrunner, Stephen Montague, Federico Pozzer, and Dennis Bathory-Kitsz.

Click to access IMOS-issue5.pdf

AMN Reviews: Progetto No Name-Duo Serpe – Mr Cartman [Bandcamp]

Mr Cartman represents the first meeting of two elecroacoustic improvisational duos from Tuscany: Progetto No Name and Duo Serpe. Progetto No Name, from the industrial city of Pontedera, comprises Sara Fontana on electric guitar and effects, voice and objects, along with Dario Arrighi on various electronics; the group’s sound tends toward the harder, noisier end of the spectrum, with a fillip of punk’s simplicity and directness. Duo Serpe, on the other hand, combines the real-time electronic processing of Cristiano Bocci with the trombone of Paolo Acquaviva. (Full disclosure: Cris is a friend and frequent collaborator of mine.) Like Progetto No Name, Duo Serpe’s sound is very much of the 21st century, but with its interface of contemporary electronics and an acoustic orchestral instrument—the latter played with classical tone and precision by Acquaviva—it is a natural inheritor of some of the electroacoustic experiments carried out within Western art music during the postwar period.

This past August both groups got together for the first time to record a series of improvisations. The music that resulted combines a heavy ambience with a touch of lyricism. Through layers of Fontana’s primitive, distorted guitar and the surrounding harsh electronic scrunge there emerge here and there nascent melodies and arpeggios from the trombone, which Bocci records, amplifies and dresses with reverb. Bocci’s live processing of the instrument is discerning and never completely effaces its native sound, yet at the same time, it facilitates its taking its place assertively within the larger mix. To Duo Serpe’s classical intimations Progetto No Name brings something of the Dada spirit of the artfully artless readymade, what with Fontana’s use of miscellaneous objects and Arrighi’s samplings; there’s even a track named for the Dadaist-Surrealist painter Max Ernst.

The August session yielded six tracks totaling an hour and a half–a generous selection of adventurous sounds.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Luigi Nono – La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura [Kairos 0015086KAI]

The provocatively beautiful La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura: Madrigale per piu “caminantes” con Gidon Kremer, violino solo, 8 nastri magnetici, da 8 a 10 leggii, an open-form electroacoustic work for solo violin, eight-track tape and eight to ten music stands, was one of the last pieces composed by Luigi Nono (1924-1990). Nono wrote the piece after having met violinist Gidon Kremer, recordings of whose playing, which Nono later manipulated electronically in the studio, serve as the sound sources for the piece’s electronic component. Nono called the work a madrigal because he conceived it as a polyphony—specifically a polyphony that Nono, ever opposed to hierarchy in music or anywhere else, envisioned as a truly level duet for voices meeting on entirely equal terms within a given space.

The spatial setting of the work plays an important role in shaping the performance, no two of which will be exactly the same given the good deal of discretion that Nono’s score affords both performers. The eight to ten music stands are distributed within the performance area; six of them contain scores for one each of the piece’s six parts, while the remainder are empty. The violinist is to trace a path through the parts by “wandering”–both the violinist and the sound projectionist are the “caminantes,” or “wanderers,” of the title—from stand to stand, playing from the score, the empty music stands serving as disruptive wild cards of a sort. The violinist can choose when to begin and how long to play each of the parts, while the sound projectionist can fade tracks in or out in dialogue with what the violinist plays or according to his or her own sense of musical architecture. Thus though the piece has a total duration of 61 minutes, the duration any given part will have is left to the actual choices the performers make while playing. A complex work, then, and one in which a certain element of unpredictability is always in play.

The realization of La lontananza by violinist Marco Fusi and sound director Pierluigi Billone reflects the specific choices these two performers made not only during the recording of the piece, but beforehand. The two agreed on an overall architecture and, at Fusi’s suggestion, on putting a focus on the liminal aspects of the piece, and hence on some of the violin’s more elusive sonorities. The version that resulted is one of refinement and nuance. Although there are passages where the violin is played with a full-throated voice—as for example in the fourth section, or in the more cohesively linear melodies of the second section, where Fusi and Billone interact in a relationship that approaches something resembling a conventional, albeit discordantly Modernist, counterpoint—it mostly appears at the lower end of its dynamic range, often with sounds from which the stability of pitch, and in some cases even its traces, has been deliberately effaced with aporetic gestures. This is especially true of the third section, in which Fusi introduces exquisite fluctuations of tone and tone color and positions his sound at the threshold of audibility. His description of his approach to this section as involving a turn inward is apt, and in fact serves as a good description of his orientation within the work as a whole. Billone’s projection and sculpting of the electronic material provides not only the multiplied images of Kremer’s prerecorded violin, but a counterweight of assertion and density to Fusi’s voice of introversion. No mere background or neutral environment, the electronic parts carry a substantive eloquence of their own on a par with the violin. Together they offer a harmony of equals, through difference.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Transient Canvas – Right now, in a second [New Focus Recordings FCR267]

Transient Canvas, the duo of bass clarinetist Amy Advocat and marimbist Matt Sharrock, has over the years built a repertoire for their unique combination of instruments by commissioning work by contemporary composers. Their third release, Right now, in a second, continues this practice with premiere recordings of seven compositions by seven composers, all written between 2014 and 2017. Taken together, these pieces demonstrate the multidimensional, complementary relationships made possible by Transient Canvas’ seemingly austere, but in fact sonically rich, instrumentation.

To start at the end, the final track, Keith Kirchoff’s Monochrome, is a minimalist-like work built up of repeated figures, pulsing rhythms and interlocking accents that, ironically in light of its title, highlight the lush and anything-but-monochromatic color spectrum of the two instruments, particularly of the marimba. The title track, by Stefanie Lubkowski, contrasts liminal dynamics and pensive melodies for bass clarinet with episodes of pixillated rhythmic counterpoint. The kernel of Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Rebounds is a rhythmically assertive, single note passed between bass clarinet and marimba; serving first as an independent theme, the note gradually anchors a series of brief melodic flights moving away from and back toward it. Barbara White’s Fool Me Once, which opens the set, begins with rapid, syncopated lines for both Advocat and Sharrock which unravel into quiet, almost tentative passages with spaces between. The collection also includes the haltingly conversational \very/ specifically vague by Emily Koh; Clifton Ingram’s multipart Cold Column Calving; and Crystal Paccuci’s emotionally charged resonance imaging. Advocat and Sharrock’s performances on all seven works maintain the high technical standards and immediacy of presence that characterize their previous two albums.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Didier Guigue – Enquanto ainda é tempo [Fictício f0002]

Provençal-born, Brazilian musicologist and composer Didier Guigue has been creating provocative works of electroacoustic and electronic music for several decades both as a composer and as a bassoonist / contrabassoonist; he’s also written open-form works in non-standard notation. In addition to being on the faculty of the Universidade Federal da Paraíba, where his research has focused on the computer analysis of orchestration, he founded the IRCAM-associated Mus3 Research Group and was a co-founder of the Log³ Laptop Orchestra. In recent years Guigue has been working almost exclusively with electronic media and has been turning increasingly toward improvisation. In fact, he’s described much of his more recent work as “improvisations assembled and fixed.” As this background would suggest, much of Guigue’s music falls within the tradition of electronic music and musique concrète, and of experiments in avant-garde compositional methods more generally.

Enquanto ainda é tempo—“while there is still time”–is a collection of nine recent electronic pieces and Guigue’s fifth album. The pieces were realized by Guigue as well as by the Log³ Laptop Orchestra, Coletivo de Performance Artesanato Furioso, and Paralelo Cia de Dança. The music largely consists of sound collages blending elements of musique concrète, field recordings and anecdotal sounds, and electronic processing and synthesis. The title track exemplifies Guigue’s collage work. It combines recordings of what sounds like a political rally with a recording of a relentlessly steady drumming, segueing into a sampled recording of Baroque music, a manipulated recording of a female voice speaking, all followed by a long quite, electronic coda. Other pieces, like the electronic Elemens Part II and the drifting Eri Asai Awakes, take Guigue’s timbral free associations into more abstract and atmospheric territory, while Lori dans la neige, with its heavily processed recordings of the spoken word, is closer to pure musique concrète.

Guigue describes the album has having been meant to express “the last breath of optimism” in the Brazil of the late 2010’s. And while some of the sounds can be harsh and dark, there is in much of the music a contrasting lightness and openness to provide a sober balance.

Daniel Barbiero