AMN Reviews: Yiorgis Sakellariou – Nympholepsy [Noise Below]

Yiorgis Sakellariou’s Nympholepsy is a portrait in sound of the historical ghosts inhabiting the ruins of Ancient Messene, a city on the Greek peninsula of The Peloponnese. Over the centuries, the site saw several waves of settlement and conquest, of building, destruction and reconstruction, beginning with foundation by the Achaeans and culminating with the city’s reestablishment in 369 BCE after the defeat of Sparta by Thebes at Leuctra. Much more recently–in 2018–the ruins of Ancient Messene were the focus of a Tuned City event in which a number of sound artists were commissioned to explore the themes of place and memory and their implications for the situated nature of listening. Sakellariou was one of the artists invited to participate; Nympholepsy is the work that resulted.

The audio interpretation of an ancient city would seem to be a natural fit for Sakellariou. Trained as an ethnomusicologist and active since the early 2000s as a composer of electronic music and a field recordist, Sakellariou has produced a body of work largely concerned with ferreting out and disclosing the networks of association that tie together an environment and the listeners situated within it. For Nympholepsy he took field recordings of Ancient Messene and combined them with manipulated recordings of the voice of Savina Yannetou, a Greek vocalist as conversant with early music as she is with contemporary improvisation. Sakellariou alters the sound of Yannetou’s voice artfully, changing its pitch and timbre, setting up rhythmic patterns and blocks of sound, and occasionally stripping it down to traces of its grain with the underlying breath exposed. Structurally, the twenty-three minute-long piece is a work of accumulation and densification as Sakellariou adds layers of sound elements and pressures them into thickening masses—an especially appropriate response to a place that itself was the product of an accretion of peoples and their material cultures over long periods of time.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Guilherme Rodrigues, Ernesto Rodrigues, Dietrich Petzold, Jan Roder – Get Your Own Picture [Creative Sources CS630]

From its 18th century origins until today, the string quartet has undergone a continuous process of change. One of the more interesting and recent of these changes is the string quartet playing freely improvised, often texturally or timbrally focused music. Europe’s Quatuor BRAC is exemplary of the type; a fine new quartet, made up of highly skilled improvisational musicians from Portugal and Germany, brings its own voice to this solid, yet still young, tradition.

The group, which consists of Portuguese-born, Berlin-based cellist Guilherme Rodrigues; Rodrigues’ father Ernesto on viola; and Berliners Dietrich Petzold on violin and viola and Jan Roder on double bass, recorded Get Your Own Picture in Berlin in October 2018. The inclusion of a double bass makes the ensemble’s configuration unconventional—a string quartet ordinarily includes two violins, viola and cello—but not unique. Quatuor BRAC, for example, also includes a double bass. The occasional substitution of a second viola for violin represents a further break with the string quartet’s traditional instrumentation, but it also helps give the group a distinctive sound of its own.

The trio of the two Rodrigueses and Petzold had already formed a musical partnership, having recorded together previously and released three albums that also appear on the Creative Sources label. Roder thus joins a group already fairly well integrated—and one in which his voice seamlessly blends.

As with traditional string quartets line, and especially the complexities of multiple lines interacting, is the focus, but the Rodrigueses, Petzold, and Roder take this traditional focus and subject it to a particularly creative twisting and distortion that decenters and pushes it to the edges of recognizability. The four also embellish their lines with episodes of purely timbral sounds, the effect of which is to add nuance to what is essentially pitch-driven music. Further adding nuance and affective force is the group’s meticulous and carefully calibrated attention to textural density and overall dynamics.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jeff Surak: naming the trees [Zeromoon]; Beau Finley: Processing [11] [Bandcamp]; TL0741: Refractory [HC3 Music HC3TL0CD6]

For a good number of years—good in both senses of the word—the Sonic Circuits organization, through its annual experimental music festival and monthly concert series, helped nurture the DC area’s experimental and electronic music communities. Sonic Circuits may have ceased operations in 2018, but the music underground here continues to maintain an active presence. Three new releases bring us up to date on the work of a troika of the scene’s veteran artists.

Jeff Surak was the curator behind Sonic Circuits; he’s also a sound artist with an eclectic and extensive catalogue of work. On naming the trees, release as both a digital download and a limited edition cassette, he pursues the not-terribly-gentle art of noise in two ten-minute-long slabs. In his live performances as well as on record, Surak tends to favor brutalist strata of raw sound, and there’s much of that to be had here. On left hanging he deftly layers the abrasive sounds of prepared autoharp and the clicks, scratches, and pops of prepared turntable against a background of electronic washes and bell-like drones; on the title track he crafts a tension-filled, dark ambient atmosphere out of throbbing synthesizer tones. Bracing, uneasy listening.

Contrasting with the predominantly harsh sounds of naming the trees is guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Beau Finley’s Processing [11]. Although some of his live performances have involved walls of densely abstract, electronic sounds, Finley’s specialty is euphonic, tonally centered ambient music with well-defined melodic content. Processing [11] is the eleventh installment of a year-long project in which he set out to create 365 minutes of music in twelve monthly sections, with each section having the same number of minutes as days in its month. Starting with the key of C in January, he moved through the circle of fifths at the rate of one key per month. Processing [11] brings him up to November, and if it’s November, it must be B flat. After a very brief prelude outlining the key, the music moves into a hymn-like passage whose chords float slowly over a rich bassline before dissolving into an upbeat, quasi-Baroque chord cycle complete with synthesized arpeggios and counterpoint. And that’s only on the first piece; the remaining four weave together drones, upper chord extensions, unconventional cadences, and off-center sequencing into a suite of music that is really quite beautiful and affecting.

Refractory is the new release from TL0741, the solo synthesizer project of Patrick Gillis. In addition to being a performing artist, Gillis was a key, if largely behind the scenes, part of the Sonic Circuits organization. Refractory follows 2014’s Circulation and is worth the five-year wait. The basic tracks were laid down at live performances in DC-area venues between 2014 and 2017 and subsequently altered, amended and added to in the studio. A colorist with a particularly keen ear for juxtaposition, Gillis draws from a rich palette of timbres recalling the vocabulary of classic electronic and tape music, which he twists and creatively distorts into something uniquely his own. Gillis’ is music that naturally lends itself to synesthesia–a soundtrack for a strangely appealing dream world full of flashing lights of unknown provenance and enigmatic metallic objects receding over the horizon.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Kyle Motl – In Search of a Certain Bird [Bandcamp]; Aaron Lumley – Plays the Doghouse Bass [Bandcamp]

It seems difficult to believe now, but there was a time not too long ago when solo double bass recordings were rare events. Things have changed considerably, though, and recordings for solo bassists playing music both composed and improvised have become plentiful—plentiful enough that it seems, at times, that there are almost too many to keep up with. But not too many tout court; as Mae West once said, too much of a good thing can be…wonderful.

Add to that number two new releases for solo double bass from Aaron Lumley and Kyle Motl. Lumley and Motl share some commonalities in that both are predominantly improvisers, and are active in fields that encompass varieties of rock as well as contemporary composed music. Both also structure their solo performances around extended techniques especially developed to draw out the widest range of sonorities from their instrument.

Lumley, originally from Canada and now resident in Amsterdam, was a late-comer to the double bass, only having begun playing it at age 25. On Doghouse Bass he plays a gut-stringed instrument tuned to fifths rather than the standard fourths, which gives the bass a rich resonance. Lumley’s solo performance, recorded in November of last year, is energetic and concerned with the creation of sound masses built up from the simultaneous sounding, whether bowed or plucked or both at once, of multiple strings. His playing here is always forward-moving, pushed ahead as much by tremolo bowing as by an aggressive pizzicato; he often balances an explosive lower register with the shrilling sounds of harmonics, multiphonics, and bowing close to the bridge. His is a raw, exuberant sound expressed in a highly personal vocabulary of limit-challenging techniques.

The three main tracks of Motl’s In Search of a Certain Bird were recorded in August 2019 in a dance studio in a bucolic setting in Vermont. The environment—the room’s acoustics as well as the sounds of the woods coming in through the open windows—appears to have been the main inspiration for the recording; to infer from Motl’s liner note, the recording appears to have been undertaken more or less spontaneously and to have embodied a kind of purposeful purposelessness. The fourth track, House of Apples, was recorded the following month at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City. In contrast to Lumley’s perpetual motion, Motl tends to break his improvisations up into discrete gestures and themes differentiated, suite-like, with rests or drastic changes in dynamics. Motl can pivot from forte passages to pianissimo with an abruptness that heightens the dramatic effect of such a change; lay down liquid melodies distorted with extreme bow articulation and then fracture them with percussive strikes of bow and hand; punctuate more-or-less conventional pizzicato runs with exotic harp harmonics. Motl’s technical mastery of his instrument is stunning, but always in the service of elucidating a coherent musical logic.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Recent Releases from NoBusiness Records

NoBusiness Records, the Lithuanian label that specializes in reissues of adventurous jazz from the generation of the 1960s and 1970s as well as new improvised music in the jazz tradition, approaches the year’s end with a clutch of releases highlighting unusual instrumental ensembles.

First is Zenith, the second installment in the label’s essential Sam Rivers archival release series. Zenith is a live recording made at the Jazztage Berliner 1977 with an unconventional quintet of Rivers on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and piano; Dave Holland on double bass and cello; Joe Daley on tuba and euphonium; and both Barry Altschul and Charlie Persip on drums. The quintet was a subset of the larger orchestra Rivers brought to Europe; this may have been their only performance together as a quintet. And an intense performance it is: a single, 53-minute improvisation that establishes and maintains a high energy level throughout. The two drummers mesh well and don’t overwhelm the rest of the group; Holland and Daley, who developed a finely-tuned working relationship in the Rivers quartet during this period, complement each other well and avoid any redundancy of line or color in the lower registers. Rivers’ playing is explosive and inspired, which is no surprise in light of the rich textures his bandmates weave.

Reptiles is a recording of the Israeli trio Bones, comprising bass clarinet (Ziv Taubenfeld), double bass (Shay Hazan), and drums (Nir Sabag). While the pianoless saxophone trio is a well-established configuration within jazz, the pianoless bass clarinet trio is less so. Bass clarinet and double bass are known for being among the quieter instruments in any ensemble but on this raw, forceful recording they show a more aggressive side. Taubenfeld’s sound tends toward the acerbic while Hazan favors a blunt-edged pizzicato on most of the tracks; Sabag’s free polyrhythms provide the trio with a propulsive push. Odd-numbered tracks are collective pieces, while the even-numbered tracks are solo performances for double bass, bass clarinet, and drums, respectively.

Recorded in an intimate live setting in Yamaguchi, Japan in 1997, The Aiki represents a rare meeting of pianist Masahiko Satoh and drummer Sabu Toyozumi. The two long duets that make up the release are the product of a chemistry that is as deep as it is rarely given occasion to combust, as Satoh’s tightly coiled, knotty lines find a fine foil in Toyozumi’s muscular excursions ranging over the entire drum kit. If the pairing of piano and trap drums implies a relatively restricted palette of timbres, Satoh and Toyozumi compensate by building their improvisations through a sophisticated use of space and dynamics.

Another recording from the 1990s, Blue Cat is a 1991 session for the quartet of cornetist Bobby Bradford, alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, double bassist Kent Carter, and drummer John Stevens. The four play a finely crafted free swing especially notable for the mutually supportive, motivic interplay of the two horns and solid playing from the rhythm section.

Finally, Brain in a Dish from the trio of Steve Swell on trombone, Robert Boston on piano and organ and drummer Michael Vatcher is a freely improvised collection of eleven pieces that takes Swell’s extended vocabulary of growls, squeals, air notes and buzzes and situates them within a sympathetic and stimulating setting. Particularly intriguing are the pieces for the timbrally distinctive combination of trombone and organ.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Sivan Silver-Swartz – Untitled 6 [Editions Wandelweiser EWR 1920]; a•pe•ri•od•ic – for [New Focus Recordings fcr249]

Nearly seventy years have passed since John Cage composed 4’33,” his most famous—or notorious, as at the time it seemed—“silent” piece. Since then the questions 4’33” raised—regarding the limits and definition of music; the relationship between the work and the environment in which it is performed; the ontological different, or indeed indifference, between sound and silence; and above all, the degree of control or letting-go a score can or should exert over its product—have given rise to a significant lineage or tradition within new music. Two new releases of music for chamber ensembles fall within that lineage and serve to bring it forward.

The Chicago ensemble a•pe•ri•od•ic, founded by composer/pianist Nomi Epstein in 2010, fits firmly, and quite deliberately, within the lineage initiated by Cage’s work. The group, which on this recording is an octet of violin, cello, flute, bass clarinet/clarinet, bassoon/voice, French horn, piano, and voice, performs works biased toward various kinds of indeterminacy, whether of orchestration, sound material, or architecture. Silence also plays a major role in their music, whether as primary material or as a structural element.

The four compositions on for were commissioned by the group; three are by group members and the fourth is by composer Michael Pisaro.

Violinist Billie Howard’s Roll (2016) comprises a sequence of soloists playing a sustained tone ending with a freely-chosen upward or downward glissando, followed by a silence. What comes to the fore in this work is the unique timbral quality of each instrumental voice, with the lower-pitched bassoon and cello making an especially rich impression. Vocalist Kenn Kumpf contributes Triadic Expansions (2) of 2017, a piece of mutating harmonies built up from slowly ascending or descending scales of more or less arbitrary pitch content. The entrances and exits are staggered in a way that creates an out-of-synch effect that keeps the center of gravity for the entire sound mass in a constant state of motion. Combine, Juxtapose, Delayed Overlap (2013-2017) by Epstein, is a very quiet textural piece that seems to play with the ambiguous status—are they music? Are they noise? Are they just a strange crystallization of silence into sound?–of liminal audio events. Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen (2013), in contrast to the austerity of Epstein’s piece, contains passages of almost lush bundles of sustained tones moving cloudlike across and through each other. The piece is broken into sections by long silences and is punctuated with passages for percussive pizzicato strings and a slowly ascending scale begun on piano and continued on horn.

One of the composers who studied under Pisaro is Sivan Silver-Swartz (b. 1993). Like many composers of his generation, Silver-Swartz works in eclectic forms ranging from composed new music to rock-derived song. His Untitled 6 is an hour-long work in just intonation for three or more violins, violas, cellos or other bowed instruments that can be detuned as called for by the score. On this recording, the piece is played by two violas, two cellos, and one violin. As with the compositions on for, Untitled 6 is an open-form work that leaves many performance decisions up to the players. The performers are divided into two groups, one of which is assigned a score arranged somewhat like a chessboard each of whose squares specifies a given sound gesture or a silence; this set of performers is given latitude, within some constraints, to choose the sequence of squares, and hence sounds or silences, they will play. The score for the second set of players is a linear table that specifies durations but allows for choices of dynamics and gestures. Like Kumpf’s Triadic Expansions (2) or Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen, Untitled 6 unfolds in a set of slowly shifting harmonies, but here the harmonies are given a particular piquancy from the instruments’ tunings and from the limitation of melodic material to open strings and the first harmonic—overall, music cast in a somewhat darker shade of consonance.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Various Artists – Anthology of Persian Experimental Music [Unexplained Sounds Group]

Three or so years ago the Unexplained Sounds Group issued a digital collection of experimental and electronic music from Iran. It was the first of USG’s fascinating set of surveys of experimental music from places whose musical communities are often overlooked or obscured, sometimes for extra-musical reasons. As was the case here: in order to avoid having the Iran collection banned from certain platforms, USG had to label the release as “Persian” rather than “Iranian.” In a way, though, the name is rather fitting, since it serves to imply the continuity of musical culture in what is now called—censors be damned—Iran.

USG has reissued the original digital album as a limited edition CD supplemented with digital bonus tracks. What the collection demonstrates is that Iran’s musical underground doesn’t appear to be working in complete isolation; the sounds here compare well to electronic work being made elsewhere in the world. The predominant tendency is toward heavy electronics in a dark ambient mode, but there are some tracks that summon the rhythms of dance music, others that feature cosmic choirs of voices sounding through layers of electronic fuzz and grit, and yet others centered on undulating drones and synthesized arpeggios. And as with USG’s other surveys of experimental music outside of the Western world, this one is worth hearing.

Daniel Barbiero