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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Toronto composer/cellist Nick Storring’s My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell is his sixth solo release. Solo, but containing multitudes of instruments—all of which he performs himself–and, consequently, of sonorities. The inspiration for the album is the music of Roberta Flack, but any relation between the music on this album and Flack’s music is obliquely allusive and filtered through Storring’s own sensibilities, which here show themselves to be romantic, inward-gazing, and lushly cinematic. Listening to the album is like listening to the soundtrack to a film set in an imaginary landscape: vivid, slightly hallucinatory, and receding to a point just at the edge of perception. Although Storring’s cello is most often the central voice here, the sheer variety of other instruments carefully layered into the mix and the rich range of sound colors they bring are integral to the effective realization of the music’s emotional spectrum and strange lability. Unsettingly beautiful.
Plus Timbre consistently releases freely improvised music often directed more toward sound as such than toward more conventional considerations of melody or harmony; what sets its releases apart from many other sound-based improvised music is the sheer sensual quality of much of it. Even when the improvising is at its most abstract, there’s frequently a palpable delight to be had in the almost tangible sounds of the instrumental voices. The label’s two most recent issues are consistent with this aesthetic. Both contain sound-based improvisations that begin at, but aren’t limited to, that zero point of pure gesture before conventional music emerges; both revel in the pleasures of sonic texture.
Marcello Magliocchi and Alen Grassi’s Trama comprises two long and one short improvisation. The first of the long tracks foregrounds Magliocci’s crisply recorded percussion. As this and the other tracks demonstrate, Magliocchi is an outstanding color drummer able to draw on a sumptuous palette of metal, wood and membrane. Grassi’s electric guitar, in turn, is the dominant voice on the second long track. Grassi sets up simple harmonic tensions with drones and two-chord patterns, and then dissolves it all into picked-out, muted notes and bent tones.
Clarinetist-contrabass clarinetist Johannes Feuchter and percussionist Stanislas Pili’s über.zeit is a five-part improvised suite that begins with the ticking of a mechanical alarm clock and ends when the bell rings. In between, Feuchter and Pili explore sounds ranging from pitchless noise to melodic fragments and drones. Feuchter alternates between the low, reedy buzz of the contrabass clarinet at one end, and the flitterings and trills of the clarinet’s upper registers at the other; in addition, he offers the pre-musical sounds of the plosions and stutterings of breath moving through a wooden tube. Pili covers a comparably broad range running from the rumbling of a bass drum to the shimmering of high-pitched chimes.
In describing what music sounds like it’s virtually impossible to avoid falling back on metaphors and similes of various kinds; as it happens, the most musically suggestive figures and comparisons come from the language of the visual arts. And so it is that Canadian composer Jordan Nobles titles his 30-minute-long Chiaroscuro (2014/2020) after a painterly technique; but unlike chiaroscuro, which exploits the binary opposition of light and shadow, Chiaroscuro exploits multifaceted interactions of instrumental color. Nobles’ basic material consists of clusters of voices defined by their particular fusions of timbres rather than by conventional melodies or harmonies; he arranges these clusters as a sequence of semi-independent events taking place within a virtually static rhythmic framework. The atmosphere is suspenseful and palpably, if subtly, tense.
Running at half the length of the quasi-immobile Chiaroscuro is the strongly rhythmic Pulses (1998) which, as its title suggests, is a piece constructed of pulse-based melodic patterns and their variations. As with Chiaroscuro, the focus of the piece is on changes of instrumental color. In contrast to the longer work, in the shorter Pulses a steady rhythm provides the continuity binding a series of smoothly segued, gradually evolving aggregations of instrumental timbres. Nobles keeps the undistractingly simple melodic material moving among constantly changing subgroups of different sizes and makeup; the result is an absorbing work that revels in the sheer beauty of sound-color dynamics.
Lost and Found is the second release from the J. Pavone String Ensemble, a string quartet comprising violist Jessica Pavone, who composed all of the music here, violist Abby Swidler, and violinists Ericka Dicker and Angela Morris. The four compositions neatly demonstrate Pavone’s continuing interest in the musical possibilities of long tones in slowly evolving relationships.
The bulk of the four pieces largely consists of harmonically mobile sound masses made up of sustained tones gradually drifting up and down. If there is a recurring motif here it would be the slow glissando, which provides the engine driving the internal dynamic of the group’s collective sound. The generally quiet dynamics don’t disguise the subtle tension underlying much of the music—a tension occasionally and dramatically broken by the sudden but temporary appearance of a major triad. The unconventional makeup of this string quartet—two violins and two violas—give its voice a bias toward the upper registers, resulting in an often shimmering, ethereal sound. The entire recording has an austere beauty to it not only on account of the writing, but because of the ensemble’s tightly-controlled performance.
Guitarist/composer Guillaume Gargaud of Le Havre, France, is a well-recorded artist, having appeared in some twenty-five recordings, including eight solo recordings. Guillaume frequently plays electric guitar enhanced by pedals and computer sound modification, but on Strange Memories, his new solo release, he limits himself to acoustic guitar. Gargaud’s fluency on acoustic guitar is well-documented; for example, just a year ago he played that instrument on Magic Intensity, a fine duet recording with pianist Burton Greene, who is himself a veteran of the avant-garde jazz world of the 1960s. The improvisations on Magic Intensity are free-floating but cohesive, a pattern that Gargaud continues to follow on Strange Memories. On this new recording Gargaud’s improvisations follow a free-associative logic that takes them through harmonic and melodic developments constrained only by the chromatic imagination. The music is by turns abstract and melodic; Gargaud’s playing is sharply-etched with the occasional garnish of some extended technique and scordatura and, on one track apparently, some hardly-there electronics.