AMN Reviews: Thomas DeLio – Selected Compositions II 1972-2015 [Neuma 450-116]

Selected Compositions II is the second installment in Neuma’s Composers Series of works by composer Thomas DeLio (1951). As with the first installment, Selected Compositions II contains compositions for solo instruments and small ensembles, some for electronics, and one relatively large-scale work for soprano and orchestra. DeLio, who has a background in mathematics and visual art as well as in music, frequently works with disjunctive forms and an expanded palette of sound; the pieces presented here are representative of the composer’s aesthetic on both counts. He also creates what he calls “deconstructions”—electronically manipulated recordings of previous performances of his work, one of which is included in the set.

DeLio’s rhetoric of discontinuity and rupture is particularly on display in two versions of inents (2015), an electronically-processed setting of P. Inman’s poem aengus for six voices. Inman’s fragmentary text lends itself well to DeLio’s treatment, which proceeds over a broken surface of silences, electronic sounds, and spoken words. The brief – en/l’espace de…(2007) for soprano and orchestra draws a minimum of sound from a maximal surrounding of silence; the pleasure of the piece consists in its paradoxical leveraging of the greatest instrumental resources to produce a microeconomy of sound.

The deconstruction included here is thoughtfully juxtaposed with the performance it takes as its source. The source, 1990’s anti-paysage for flute, piano, percussion and electronics, anchors isolated sound events in an ocean of silence; its deconstruction, anti-paysage II (2013), reduces the original recording’s already reduced surfaces to a glittering, second-order abstraction.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Tim Rutherford-Johnson – Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 [U of California Press: 2017]

Certain years take on a talismanic significance. To conjure them is to call up a world—to provide a condensed description of an epochal shift in social arrangements, political structures, or cultural sensibilities. 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, is one such year, being shorthand for the end of the bipolar, Cold War order that held since 1945 (itself an epochal year). For music critic Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 1989 is a threshold year for music as well as for geopolitics; as he argues in Music After the Fall, his stimulatingly broad and broad-minded survey of new music, the period since then has brought a wave of globalization, liberalization and market economics as well as a revolutionary ubiquity of digital information and communication technologies, all of which have had significant impacts on the production and reception of new music.

The new music Rutherford-Johnson surveys is contemporary Western art music. The designation “Western art music” is a not always entirely accurate description of a music that has become internationalized both as a source of and a recipient of influence across borders, and has become hybridized through the influence of musical forms, techniques and technologies of other genres and traditions. But as Rutherford-Johnson notes, for historical reasons the label is still meaningful in that it usefully picks out music situated within a “tradition originating in the West [and which] maintains certain continuities with that tradition.” This is music generally taking the form of a notated score written by a composer and intended for presentation in a concert setting.

As becomes apparent in light of the many examples of recent work that Rutherford-Johnson deftly describes throughout the book, “Western art music” is a consummately porous category whose members are heterogeneous in style, form, materials and methods of realization. The work he surveys inhabits an epic range of difference. It can concern itself with large-scale harmonic movement or the timbral properties of a single, static chord; it can be conventionally notated or communicated through graphic symbols; it may embrace spectral analysis, generative processes, extended performance techniques, just intonation, metered rhythms, no rhythms, and silence. At its borders, it shades off into noise and performance art.

Western art music’s porousness and openness to outside influences isn’t a new development. American composers of the last century imported references to jazz, popular tunes and hymns; Eastern European composers drew on the modal materials and microtonal inflections of native folk idioms; French composers’ choices of scales and emphasis on timbres were inspired by gamelan and other Asian music. But the porousness of contemporary composed music seems qualitatively different from what came before. Rutherford-Johnson is right to suggest that music post-1989 appears to have reached a point where the external influences are stronger, more thorough-going, and as likely to change art music conventions as to be changed by them. The integration of elements of other musics to Western art music now seems more complex—in some cases less a matter of assimilation or absorption than a matter of co-adaptation or co-evolution.

This altered relationship between Western art music and musics outside of its tradition may partly be an effect of what might be called the subculturization of Western art music. Once a clearly dominant source of cultural capital that could define the main current of Western music, it now seems to be one musical subculture among many. Why this should be is an interesting question; what in effect is Western art music’s change in cultural status makes sense when seen against the background of the larger cultural changes Rutherford-Johnson describes.

Two of the most important of these changes are globalization and the ascendency of market economics. Both have been instrumental in influencing the shape of recent art music.  Partly this is because of the opportunities for cross-fertilization they have afforded, and partly because they have helped bring about changes in audience makeup and expectations.

Globalization has made possible what amounts to the internationalization of Western art music and the reciprocal Westernization of other forms of music not native to the West. Under these conditions categories and boundaries that, for historical and other reasons, were regarded as relatively fixed have overlapped, become transmuted or been effaced. In practical terms, this means an opening up of Western art music to new possibilities rooted in or influenced by once-foreign musical forms, materials and so forth, while at the same time altering their native Western counterparts. At the same time, through globalization the culture and status-defining values of Western elites are disseminated throughout the world and made into transnational standards. One of these status-defining values may be an acknowledgment of the importance of an art music continuing, in some recognizable way, the traditions established by music composed in the West since the late seventeenth century. In describing the state of contemporary music and culture, Rutherford-Johnson invokes Zygmunt Bauman’s idea that the condition of postmodernity is a “liquid” one–essentially a state of uprootedness and constant flux in which identities are unstable and/or profoundly malleable; nowhere is liquidity more apparent than in the exchanges of information, norms and human and other resources afforded, if not demanded, by globalization.

The turn away from government arts funding and toward the market economy made demands of its own on new music. In practical terms, it meant that new music would have to find an audience and thus, as Rutherford-Johnson remarks, would have to incorporate “more accessible, populist forms.” He offers as examples the “spiritual minimalists” Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener, whose music attained popularity not only because of its spiritual program, but because its simpler forms and graspable harmonic structures were more easily assimilable to listeners than the complex, tonally decentered forms of modernism and its inheritors. For those same reasons it was also particularly well-adapted to use in television and film soundtracks—potentially lucrative markets that would virtually guarantee widespread dissemination of these composers’ work.

Technology, too, has had a hand in shaping the new music. Digital means of composing, producing and reproducing music of course have had a significant impact on contemporary music, but Rutherford-Johnson suggests that changes in listening habits have had a crucial influence as well. He points to the ubiquitous use of mp3 players under conditions that would favor shorter works or music without a good deal of surface complexity or nuance—either of which would be likely to be lost amid the encroaching wash of ambient noise, especially in urban environments. (36-37)

Not all of the new music is short, simple and direct, though. Post-experimental music with a strong conceptual dimension, or music engaged with innovative compositional methods and calling  for challenging instrumental techniques, as well as music based on and extending the High Modernist use of complex precompositional structures, all have a place in the new music, and provide Rutherford-Johnson with some of the book’s more thought-provoking examples.

If anything unites these quite disparate kinds of works, it is that they were created in an environment Rutherford-Johnson characterizes as “permissive.” Just as Cage’s music and aesthetic philosophy gave composers permission to experiment regardless of reigning orthodoxies, contemporary music has been given permission to draw on forms and materials covering the entire range from the non-musical to the intricately complex to “the simple and naively musical.” As a result, Rutherford-Johnson locates current musical practices within a “guiding ethic [of] choice rather than innovation” in which choice encompasses all available possibilities and precedents, be they formal, material, expressive, etc. Whereas Cage—and musical modernism generally–granted composers permission to innovate, the contemporary atmosphere has granted a type of permission just as important: The permission not to innovate. Consequently, it is the composer’s prerogative to choose from anything from within the history of Western art music as well as from musical traditions outside of that history. The legacy of Western art music is something ready-to-hand, an instrument among other instruments there for the attainment of present projects. But some pasts would appear to be more present than others. Rutherford-Johnson suggests that the most relevant past consists of the near past as embodied in “the musical legacies of the 1960s and ‘70s.”

It is this use of the past as a point of reference that underlies what Rutherford-Johnson argues is the common sensibility underlying much contemporary art music. He terms this sensibility “afterness.” It is comparable to the feeling of belatedness or of living and working after one’s time, often remarked on among postmodern theorists. To that extent, it is a sensibility that can be expected to permeate a music aware of its having come after the epochal developments of the past century, and consequently as being concerned with absorbing, assimilating and transfiguring the legacy of those precedents in order to make something of its own. (This is similar to the situation of painting and architecture in the 1980s, when a self-consciously postmodern sensibility pervaded works that appropriated or alluded to art-historical and pop-cultural conventions and images.) An additional factor to consider is that contemporary music is being made in an environment in which digital technologies have preserved and made widely accessible virtually the entire history of recorded music—time has in a sense collapsed into an encompassing contemporaneity in which all music coexists in this moment, now.

But whereas belatedness per se may lead to despair in the face of a present suffocating under the weight of the past—a sense that everything that can be done has already been done–afterness, at least in the sense that Rutherford-Johnson intends it, seems to mean something else. Afterness may just be a moment, albeit a necessary one, within any tradition. Consider that a tradition is a temporally extended, reciprocal negotiation of continuity and change—an interwoven set of historically contingent practices and understandings–developing as it forges a future through an ongoing dialogue of its present with its past. Its situation at any given time reflects the current state of its argument with itself—a self-conscious argument about materials, methods, meanings and forms, about who will create and consume it and to what uses it will be put once created. If “the Fall” is an image of the fall from innocence into self-consciousness, then I would suggest that this ongoing dialogue is indeed the situation of music after the fall—and that there never was a time before the fall. In that sense, music has always been after itself.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: BLK TAG – Impacted Wisdom [Fuzzy Panda] & Chester Hawkins – Natural Causes [Intangible Arts]

Within recent months a sense of anxiety and disquiet has become common among many musicians and other artists in the Washington, DC area. It’s a synchronicity of a kind that this atmosphere harmonizes with an enduring current among the DC area’s experimental music scene. Although hardly unique to DC area artists, it nevertheless has been well-represented here; it consists in a predilection for layered slabs of generally thickly textured, darkly-shaded electronic sounds analogous to the opaque concrete facades of weathered Brutalist architecture. (Admittedly, all analogies by nature contain an element of imprecision, not least those drawn between music and other art forms, but still…) Often taking the guise of drone-based, long-form compositions or improvisations, this music is likely to institute movement through slow timbral or textural change rather than through melodic or harmonic development. A pair of new releases by three longtime DC area electronics artists, both of which appear as vinyl LPs and as digital downloads, retains some of the characteristics of the basic sound—a fine example of which could be heard in a recent electroacoustic set by Jeff Surak at Rhizome DC’s Maple House–but with developments and refinements distinctly these artists’ own. (Disclosure: The artists discussed here are friends, colleagues, and occasional collaborators.)

Impacted Wisdom is a new issue from BLK TAG, a collaborative project of Chris Videll, aka Tag Cloud, and J.S. Adams, the artistic director for BLK w/BEAR and the turntable ensemble STYLUS. Videll has brought an almost subliminal melodic sensibility to heavy electronic drone; for this recording he uses his standard collection of various analogue electronics along with Tibetan bowls, bells, shruti box and harmonium, all of which are capable of generating thick, tonally-focused textures. Adams, who with BLK w/BEAR uses a miscellany of instruments and objects as well as provides conceptual structures that serve as compositional skeletons, here plays turntables spinning prepared vinyl, tapes, effects, loops and electronics. In addition to Videll and Adams’ sounds, the recording includes digital contributions by Doug Poplin, Guillermo Pizzaro and Gleb Kanasevich. Individually, Videll and Adams tend to structure their performances through textural variations, and that is the case collectively with the music on Impacted Wisdom. The seventeen-minute long Theeth opens with throbbing, droning chords that crest and recede in dynamic waves; the scuffle and click of Adams’ prepared vinyl emerge as the drone takes on a harsher edge and the atmosphere gradually becomes more oppressive. For a finale, Videll manipulates the timbre into something resembling the hum of an ungrounded appliance. Like Theeth, the shorter K231 HIDDEND RVS RMX is densely textured but somehow lighter in tone. It traces a slowly rising and falling dynamic arc as it develops through nuanced shifts in the timbral surface.

Chester Hawkins’ Natural Causes is a soundtrack recording for the film Pale Trees by filmmaker Tim Ashby. Hawkins, the artist formerly known as Blue Sausage Infant, has over the years developed a sound based on thick electronic washes overlaid on brief, looped phrases. With Natural Causes Hawkins refines the rawer surfaces of his earlier work, analogous to measuring and cutting heavy slabs into regular blocks incised with recurring designs. Throughout much of this new piece he sets up sequenced phrases to function as ostinati, giving the music the character of beat-driven drone. Rhythm is the basic organizational principle at work, as variations in tempo and the lengths of repeated phrases serve as structural landmarks distinguishing sections within the whole. In order to accommodate the LP format the piece is broken up into two side-long parts, but the division doesn’t prevent the sound from inducing an enveloping, hypnotic effect.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michael C. Heller – Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s [U of California Press]

In the late 1960s, Ornette Coleman’s Lower Manhattan loft on Prince Street became a locus of activity, as well as a place to stay, for creative musicians in or passing through New York. When Anthony Braxton returned to the US from Paris in late 1969, he moved in, as did Leroy Jenkins, also back from Europe. Eventually Artists House, as it came to be known, became a performance venue as well as a space for crashing, socializing and rehearsing.

Artists House was one of many artists’ spaces that had been carved out of Lower Manhattan’s deindustrialized factories and warehouses in the 1960s and 1970s. Among the artists moving into these abandoned buildings—sometimes legally, and sometimes not—were some of the most innovative and exploratory players to come out of the jazz tradition. During this particularly fecund period they established an alternative infrastructure for creative music that, for both better and for worse, came to be known as the loft jazz scene. How this infrastructure came to be and how it worked is the subject of Michael C. Heller’s Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s.

Heller, an ethnomusicologist and historian of music at University of Pittsburgh, traces the history of Lower Manhattan’s avant-garde jazz community through interviews with the people involved and research in the audio and paper archives some of them amassed. Among the latter is the extensive archive of sound recordings, films, photographs and other documentary material put together by percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Juma Sultan.

The story Heller tells is of a kind of collective agency in which an aggregation of individuals—a “locus of interaction,” as he terms it–worked together to organize concerts, stage festivals and otherwise take creative and economic control of music that established, commercial avenues of distribution largely ignored. Heller situates this activity in the larger context of efforts at self-reliance and cultural preservation among the African American musical avant-garde. In this regard New York musicians were doing something that creative musicians had begun doing in other cities. Heller cites as precedents the Black Artists Group of St. Louis and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago; many of these artists relocated to New York and became influential participants in the loft scene. But New York also had its own precursors in the mid-1960s musicians’ associations formed by Charles Mingus and Max Roach—the Jazz Artists’ Guild—and by Bill Dixon, whose Jazz Composers’ Guild was established following the “October Revolution in Jazz” concerts of 1964.

To an extent, the institutions and coalitions New York creative musicians formed represented a response to external pressures. One of these was the 1972 move of the Newport Jazz Festival to New York City. Objecting to festival producer George Wein’s neglect of the local avant-garde and lack of community outreach in general, a group of New York musicians, including Sultan, James Du Boise, Sam Rivers, Ali Abuwi, Noah Howard and Rhashied Ali, formed the New York Musicians Organization and instituted the New York Musicians Jazz Festival as a counter to the Newport Jazz Festival. The NYMJF featured cutting-edge performances in some twenty or so locations around New York, including Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, Du Boise’s Studio We, Coleman’s Artists House, and the space run by the Free Life Communication, a group gathered around Dave Liebman, Bob Moses, Richie Beirach and others.

The success of the NYMJF proved to be something of an inflection point in the way the music was organized and presented, and in the attention the New York creative music community obtained. Partly as a result of its counter-festival the NYMO was able to secure funding from state and municipal governments. And it wasn’t long afterward that avant-garde improvisers like Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and others came to New York from the Midwest and elsewhere, adding further creative impetus to the scene.

But coalitions like the NYMO could be brittle. Competition for limited audiences and a finite funding pool—and an offer of collaboration from Wein—led to fissures within the group, and its eventual dissolution. In addition, the release of the five-LP Wildflowers series, recorded during the 1976 Spring Festival at Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, seemed to some long-time New York musicians to feature artists from Chicago and St. Louis disproportionately. In any event, whatever hopes Wildflowers’ release may have raised were diminished by its commercial failure.

By 1979, the loft era was effectively over. A number of factors came into play, among them an increase in rents, the closure of venues, and the at least partial absorption of the music into more mainstream clubs. But if the era had been short-lived, it also was full of creative tension and the occasion for much powerful music to be made; all the more lamentable, then, that neo-traditionalist accounts of jazz history dismissed it or ignored it altogether.

Heller’s analysis is primarily concerned with the goals and practices, the alliances and antagonisms that were the day-to-day reality of the personal and institutional networks that helped make New York’s 1970s jazz avant-garde what it was. He is less concerned with musical analysis, of which there is little. In addition, his is very much an academic book, with an emphasis on theoretical models and discourses that many readers will find abstruse. Part One does provide a good narrative account of the period, though, and the quotations from the musicians Heller interviewed add an essential, first-person perspective.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Difondo – Sampler & Zither [Setola di Maiale SM3260]

Sampler and Zither is a release from Difondo, the Cagliari duo of Sergio Camedda (sampler) and Giampaolo Campus (zither). The group’s name translates as “basically;” it’s a fitting name given their conceptual focus on returning sounds to the things themselves—that is, to the basic elements and materials of their instruments. The group’s specific interest lies in realizing the possibilities inherent in the divergent natures of the two instruments’ timbral profiles and properties. The sampler is programmed to replicate the sound of a piano, while the zither is played with a variety of extended techniques in order to make the sounds of its individual parts carry more dramatic weight than their sum. Campus makes specific regions and materials of the zither audible through the scraping, squealing, and scuffing sounds of friction and percussive strikes on wire, wood and metal. For its part the sampled piano mostly appears in paratactical fragments—isolated notes and chords sounded fully and allowed to fade slowly. Put together, the two instruments offer contrasts not only of sound color, but of mood: Much of the musical ambience arises from the tension between the meditative pacing of the piano and the restlessness of the zither’s interventions—a restlessness that models the anxiety of anticipation.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Sean Ali – My Tongue Crumbles After [Neither/Nor n/n007]; James Ilgenfritz – Origami Cosmos [Infrequent Seams 12]

Discount this as predictable partisanship if you like, but it seems as if the double bass is coming into its own as the instrument par excellence for solo performance. Whether used for improvisation or the realization of compositions, played prepared or unprepared, modified by electronics or plain, the double bass is a large presence in recent new music releases. Two new CDs focusing on solo double bass show how expressively and technically versatile the instrument is.

At 35 minutes long, Sean Ali’s debut solo recording, My Tongue Crumbles After, is a succinct portrait of the artist. Ali is a New York City based musician who, playing in tandem with double bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, has taken prepared double bass into extreme territory. On this recording of improvised music he employs preparations as well as tape collages using recordings of the spoken word as their source material. On each of the pieces, Ali teases out the implications of a single or related set of sonically well-defined gestures and techniques. His use of preparations allows him to distort the instrument’s native sound while maintaining enough of its natural profile—through the recognizable actions of bow and fingers—that it still makes itself known as a double bass. This is as true of pieces like Heartstack and Fingerdeep, rooted in a pizzicato technique that links them directly to a more conventional double bass sound, as it is of a track like Salutations, which largely takes place in unpitched territory, or Lime Works, the industrial sounds of which seem far removed from the wooden acoustic instrument that produced them.

Like My Tongue Crumbles After, Origami Cosmos, the second solo recording by James Ilgenfritz—another New York double bassist—focuses on pieces built around the performer’s repertoire of sounds and techniques. In this case, though, the pieces were written by others–four New York composers, who collaborated with Ilgenfritz in order to translate his sound into their own compositional languages. Often the vocabulary is his, and the syntax theirs. Annie Gosfield’s Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens arranges Ilgenfritz’s bowed and plucked harmonics and multiphonics into distinctively formed phrases following regularly structured rhythmic cycles. Rhythm is an unexpected element in Miya Masaoka’s Four Moons of Pluto, a microtonal drone piece whose long bowing patterns implicate a recurring, if variable, pulse. JG Thirwell’s Xigliox leverages multiple stops, open strings, and call-and-response phrases across registers to make Ilgenfritz’s single instrument sound like a choir; this piece in particular brings out Ilgenfritz’s robust tone and vocal-like vibrato. The polyphony woven into Xigliox is developed to an extreme degree in the closing piece, Elliott Sharp’s Alethia for prepared bass. This etude for constant pitch and constantly changing timbres multiplies musical and non-musical sounds simultaneously and represents Ilgenfritz’s most radical performance of the set.

Both recordings are highly recommended.

Daniel Barbiero

Baltimore SDIY Springfest Concert

The Baltimore SDIY Group announces its 2017 Springfest concert, to be held Saturday, April 15 at the Electric Maid, 268 Carroll Street NW, Washington DC 20012. The concert is all-ages with a $10 admission.

Featured artists are Dave Vosh & Keith Sinzinger as Fast Not Safe; John St. John’s Winston Psmith Project; Bev Stanton and John St. John as Novparolo; Ben Stanton’s Arthur Loves Plastic; and a group improvisation finale.

Saturday, April 15, 7:30 PM. Doors at 7:00.

For more information, visit the Baltimore SDIY webpages.