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: 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

AMN Reviews: Jérôme Combier – Gone [Aeon AECD1651]

Pitch can be likened to shadow. Shadows exist along a gradient, varying in darkness and density with the position of the viewer, the relative constancy of the light source, and the interposition of objects. Like shadow, pitch is something that exists in gradations rather than in discrete units that are precisely defined one against the other, the equal temperament tuning system notwithstanding. Much of the music of Jérôme Combier’s Gone, a set of five compositions for chamber ensembles of various sizes, takes pitch as a shadowy phenomenon with blurred boundaries.

Terra d’ombra (2012-2015), a work for partly-prepared piano, harp and cello, evokes the analogy of sound to shadow in its title. Combier’s allusion is to umber, a dark brown color named for a clay originally from Umbria, but the term translates literally as “earth of shadow.” This archaeological meaning comes out in the piece itself. The composition is based on gestures producing muted sounds—most dramatically, percussive strikes on the instruments’ bodies and partly-damped strings—which blend into well-defined pitched sounds on piano. There is no hard-and-fast boundary between the two classes of sounds, and pitch itself, particularly as it’s played on the cello or the prepared strings of the piano, is often treated as a continuum or fuzzy aggregate. Gone (2010), for clarinet, piano, string trio and electronics takes the conception of pitch as a continuum even further. Playing alone or in combination, the instruments create clouds of sound through glissandi, harmonics and extended techniques; pitches slide into and through each other and disappear into pure timbre. A similar effect is had in the swooping, wobbling microtonality of 2015’s Dawnlight for flute, piano, violin, cello and electronics.

The taut and at times jagged Dog Eat Dog (2014) for cello and acoustic guitar relies less on a dilution of pitch and more on a simplicity of structure. The three-movement work is organized to feature one or a limited number of gestures per movement; although the performers are restricted in the types of sounds or techniques they are to play, they manage to draw timbres from every part of their instruments. The string trio Noir Gris (2007) is somewhat more conventional in sound but it, too, is built up out of deliberately limited elements, in this case melodic fragments meant to parallel the rhythms and durations of speech.

The Ensemble Cairn, a group founded by Combier and made up of alumni of the Conservatoire National Supérieur of Paris, bring these pieces to life with vividness and a refined sense of color.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michael Pisaro – Resting in a Fold of the Fog [Potlatch P117]

P117_cover.inddMuch of composer Michael Pisaro’s work is driven by the desire to explore the often complex ramifications of an ostensibly simple, fundamental idea. It isn’t unusual for him to take as his starting point the act of listening, whether to environmental sounds or to the properties of the material resources—sometimes deceptively basic—that his compositions call for. And focused listening does seem to be the key to the reception of the two long pieces collected on Resting in a Fold of the Fog.

Grounded Cloud (2015-2016) is a work for electric guitar, electronics and amplified bass drum. The latter instrument, played by the Dedalus Ensemble’s Stéphane Garin, gives the performance a distinctive, rain-like sound by having been prepared with grains of rice arranged to vibrate on its surface. Over its twenty-minute length the piece traces a long-period, undulating dynamic of accumulation and dispersal helped along by noise from Pisaro’s electronics and the electric guitar of Didier Aschour, also of the Dedalus Ensemble. (Although Pisaro played electric guitar on the piece’s premiere performance in November 2015, here he is on laptop.)

Hearing Metal 4 (2010-2011) for bowed glockenspiel, electric guitar and laptop, is the fourth in a series of compositions centered on the sonic properties of a specified metal percussion instrument. Originating with a piece for sixty-inch tam-tam, with this installment the series moves to a much smaller and higher-pitched instrument. As with many of Pisaro’s compositions, the focus of Hearing Metal 4 is on making explicit the multiplicity of sounds implicit in a single material or sonic gesture. The pitch material is accordingly simple: An ascending A major scale. The scale is arranged as a series of events separated by silences; with each succeeding tone the glockenspiel’s thin, almost transparent sound shimmers when intersected by the guitar and electronics. When listened to closely this piece, like the previous one, yields a sometimes surprising, albeit restrained, sensuality.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Hannah Addario-Berry – Scordatura [Aerocade]

hab_scordatura_digitalTwenty-fifteen marked the centennial of the composition of the Sonata for Solo Cello by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. To commemorate the anniversary, cellist Hannah Addario-Berry conceived the Scordatura Project, a program of music featuring the Kodály sonata along with commissioned works for cello by contemporary composers which use the same systematic detuning—the scordatura of the title–as the sonata.

A technically challenging composition, the Kodály sonata was one of the first pieces written for unaccompanied cello since the Bach suites. What distinguishes it is its grounding in a distinctive modality and tuning; Kodály based much of the musical material on Hungarian folk sources, and called for detuning the cello’s two lowest strings down a half step. Doing so produces a B minor seventh chord on the instrument’s open strings, which adds resonance to the work’s predominant modes. Addario-Berry’s interpretation is robust and liquid, keeping in the foreground the sonata’s origins in song.

The release’s other highlights include Eric Kenneth Malcom Clark’s Ekpyrotic: Layerings IV, which appears in a shorter and a longer version. Drawing on contemporary electronic technologies and acoustic techniques, the piece exploits micro-irregularities in the pitch, phrasing and intonation of both voice and cello by taking repeated material and looping and superimposing it into a thickening mass of close-but-not-identical figures. The longer and more dramatic of the two versions builds to a high density, microtonally discordant drone.

Addario-Berry includes several less abstract, more songlike compositions in the collection, the most intriguing of which is Calor, by composer Jerry Liu. Liu’s score specifies pitches but not their rhythmic values; likewise, measures are unmetered. This allows the performer broad discretion in phrasing and forming an overall narrative arc. Addario-Berry’s interpretation brings out the natural lyricism in her playing, which indeed is evident throughout the entire set of music.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Laurence Crane and Asamisimasa – Sound of Horse [Hubro HUBROCD2582]

laurence-crane_2400x2400-px-1024x1024Composer of a catalogue encompassing over eighty works, London-based Laurence Crane (1961) writes music of elementary parts and structures. The simplicity is deliberate; Crane has expressed an interest in taking simple pitch and harmonic relationships and recontextualizing them in order to renew their capacity to appeal to listeners, and to convey musical content.

The five compositions performed here, spanning the years 1998-2009, are based on drones, slowly unfolding melodies of a handful of notes, and harmonic cycles of as little as two chords. For example, Old Life Was Rubbish (1998), a slow-moving, short work for unspecified instrumentation (here orchestrated for electric guitar, bass clarinet and piano), centers on the simple motif of a unison line placed over a deliberately struck, slightly jarring piano chord. The nuance comes out in the scoring: The three voices blend into a composite timbre that seems to belong to a hybrid, as yet unidentified instrument. Even in the twenty-minute-long, seven-movement work Sound of Horse (2009), the musical material is simple and its exposition unhurried. The melodies consist in scales or scale fragments played in slowly descending or ascending sequences on clarinet or bass clarinet; long tones bowed on the cello; and broken chords. The effect can at times be hypnotic or liminal, with each musical object being differentiated from the others by subtleties of inflection or orchestration.

On all of the pieces, the palindromically-named Asamisimasa ensemble, a Norwegian new music chamber group, gives suitably uncluttered and fine-grained performances.

Daniel Barbiero