AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Nicolas Tourney & Phil Canals – American Composers [Bandcamp]

Although they’re several decades old at this point, the innovative graphic and other open-form scores of the postwar New York School composers continue to provide inspiration and stimulation for fresh interpretations from contemporary performers. Part of the reason for this could be the very openness and indeterminacy of the works; given so much latitude within their suggestive constraints, a performer is free to bring to bear his or her own musical background in choosing specific musical values for the variables the scores leave open. American Composers, a new recording from French musicians Nicolas Tourney and Phil Canals, which contains thoughtfully creative arrangements of a number of classic works by Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and James Tenney, shows just how alive these works remain.

Tourney, a guitarist and electronic musician, is credited here with electric guitar and objects; Canals is a multi-instrumentalist represented here on saxophone and stones. The two collaborated on 2019’s Looking North, an album that combined elements of electronic drone and freely melodic saxophone improvisations. On American Composers, they eschew the denser textures and more aggressive timbres of the Looking North in favor of a sound that respects the open musical spaces implicit in the scores they’ve chosen to realize.

The opening track, Wolff’s Looking North, is a verbal score from the collection Prose Pieces. Tourney begins with an elastic but discernible pulse laid out in harmonics and semi-muted tones; Canals contributes evenly-weighted lines on the saxophone. Both explicitly through sound and implicitly through silences Tourney and Canals’ interpretation maintains the rhythmic continuity the score calls for. Brown’s December 1952, arranged for solo guitar, is an unusual realization of the classic graphic composition. Tourney’s way of grouping individual notes and chords gives his version more linear continuity and less pointillistic intermittency than many other versions of this always provocative piece. Also unusual is the duo’s setting of Feldman’s grid-like graphic score Projection 1, originally composed for solo cello. The piece here is realized for both guitar and saxophone. Canals plays most of the score’s events; his largely staccato reading is punctuated on occasion by Tourney’s sparse interventions. Canals gives a solo performance on Cage’s early Sonata for Clarinet, a semi-serial piece Cage wrote in 1933 while studying composition with Richard Buhlig and which was composed before Cage really found his own voice. The other Cage piece Canals and Tourney interpret is 1950’s A Flower for voice and closed piano. Canals plays the part for voice, which is mostly confined to four notes, with a contrasting mixture of vibratoless and vibrato tones; Tourney supplies the piano part by drumming with his hands on an opaque surface.

The album also includes the roaring rush of Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion; Brown’s 4 Systems, a graphic score of variably-lengthed rectangles similar to December 1952 which Tourney and Canals realize with a predominance of overlapping long tones; and Wolff’s Stones, another verbal composition from Prose Pieces, which instructs its performers to make a variety of sounds using…stones.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Christian Wolff – Angelica Music [Angelica IDA030]

christian wolff - angelica musicThe music of Christian Wolff has long occupied the fertile borderland between composition and improvisation, as both are usually understood. More a set of suggestions than a writ of prescriptions, his scores can take the form of graphic symbols floating freely against a white background—as in 1968’s Edges—or of pitches notated and other parameters left unspecified, as in the Exercises. He is on record as having said that a score is only a means to an end, the latter consisting of the performance, which to him just is the music. With these performances by percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, the new music sextet Apartment House and the composer himself, that end is elegantly achieved.

The ten pieces included on this recording were taken from performances at two concerts held at Bologna’s Church of Santa Caterina in May of 2013. Among the pieces is one world premiere—the duet Winter Exercise, for percussion and piano–and one first recording.

With the exception of the early Duo for Violins, all of the compositions represented here incorporate degrees of freedom for the performers to, in essence, co-create the music with the composer. As with much of Wolff’s writing, the composition is a kind of text in which the unwritten is just as important as the written; the range of possibilities implicit in what the score doesn’t make explicit is realized in the interplay of the musicians not only with whatever marks there are on the page but with each other as well. The openness of the score may be a challenge, but one that solicits creative responses from the performer. Nowhere is this more evident than in the series of Exercises Wolff has written. Inspired by the heterophony of early jazz, the Exercises are melodies made up of small clusters of notes which can be played by any combination of instruments; in addition the performer can choose the details of how he or she will play, including which notes to play and which not to play.

A 1974 installment of the series is realized here as a duet between Wolff on piano and long-time collaborator Robyn Schulkowsky on tuned percussion; a second, Exercises 10 of 1973/1974, is played by the superb and superbly adventurous Apartment House, again with Wolff, this time playing melodica. Both Exercises take on at times the sound of a loose canon, a polyphonic semi-improvisation, or a series of approximate unisons sometimes evocative of a live delay effect. In the duo settings the melodic cells are fairly transparent; the seven-voiced Exercises 10 increases the complexity of the interplay and recovers something of the jazz-like, multi-linear textures that inspired the series’ creation.

A second piece performed by Apartment House with Wolff is Edges. Perhaps one of the best-known of the postwar graphic scores, Edges consists of a single page sparsely populated by musical signs and invented shapes—a score to be played around as well as through, as Wolff once memorably described it. The realization here is a largely timbral, exploratory mosaic that takes fullest advantage of the range of sounds available to the strings in particular, through various articulations and extended techniques as well as more conventional pizzicato and arco playing. Underneath it all are Wolff’s well-selected and generally understated interventions on piano.

Apartment House are also responsible for the first recording of The Berlin Exercises (2000). Originally written for a Berlin ensemble mixing professional with amateur musicians of varying abilities, the piece unfolds in a series of short, repeating patterns of notes that sometimes create a pulse effect and other times a kind of abbreviated counterpoint. A passage in the middle is taken up with the percussive sounds of wood on wood—col legno strikes to the bodies of the string instruments?—; the piece eventually moves on to clarinetist Andrew Sparling’s vocal delivery of a text by Bertolt Brecht.

A handful of Keyboard Miscellanies, small and often occasional sketches for keyboard, are included with Wolf on piano. Rounding out the set is Duo for Violins, a piece dating back to 1950 and written after Wolff had taken some composition lessons from John Cage. Played by Apartment House’s Gordon MacKay and Ruth Ehrlich, the entire piece consists of the three notes D-Eb-E, without transpositions. Out of such seemingly unpromisingly minimal material a genuinely beautiful polyphony arises, the two lines crossing, diverging and clashing with a sometimes dramatic and sometimes subtle heightening and slackening of harmonic tension along the way.

Daniel Barbiero


The Squid’s Ear Reviews

Christian Wolff
Image via Wikipedia

From The Squid:

Morton Feldman – Turfan Fragments
(Dog w/a Bone)
– Brian Olewnick

Henri Pousseur – Electronic Experimental and Microtonal 1953-1999
(Sub Rosa)
– Brian Olewnick

Christian Wolff – Early Piano Pieces
– Brian Olewnick

Robert Haigh – Written On Water
– Darren Bergstein

Jacob Wick / Andrew Greenwald – 37:55
(Creative Sources)
– Jeph Jerman

FAB Trio – A Night In Paris
– Jeph Jerman

Memorize The Sky – In Former Times
(Clean Feed)
– Jeph Jerman

Boxhead Ensemble – Dutch Harbor
– Max Schafer

Christina Carter – Original Darkness
– Max Schaefer

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