Frieze/Static Form/Division is composer-guitarist Ian Vine’s tripartite essay into immersive sound for acoustic or electric guitar and electronics. The recording is somewhat deceptive in that what at first appears to the casual listen to be drone music in fact on closer consideration reveals itself to be music of deliberately slow harmonic rhythm. Frieze, the opening track, does indeed begin as a ringing drone, but over the course of its eighteen minutes it develops through gradual changes in color and texture as well as harmonic movement brought about by the backgrounding and foregrounding of different overtones. The rougher-surfaced Static Form follows with melodic movement in slowly descending tones, while the final track, Division, maintains a sense of tension by holding harmonic resolution dramatically in abeyance.
Tag: contemporary composition
Helmut Lachenmann’s three string quartets, realized here in exemplary form by the JACK Quartet, are challenging investigations into the architecture of sound and sound production. In these three works, as in Lachenmann’s work generally, timbre is an independent musical value that interacts with or—more often—supplants pitch, harmony and rhythm as the central element of composition. As a result the focus of these quartets is on how sound is produced, modified and organized.
Listening to the string quartets is analogous to reading Finnegans Wake—both works are extremely dense in content and shades of meaning. In Lachenmann’s case the material is sound color in the various guises it can take as it is wrung from the conventional instrumentation of two violins, a viola and a cello. Although produced from standard orchestral instruments, individual sounds can be difficult to place. As with acousmatic music, their sources—meaning here the gestures used to produce them—can sometimes only be guessed at.
Gran Torso (1971), the first quartet, is the sound of acoustic instruments in extremis, its prominent clusters of pizzicato notes emerging creaks, rattles and the sounds of distressed wood, horsehair and strings. A long pause about ten minutes into the piece adds an element of structural enigma to match the sonic enigmas on either side of it. Reigen seliger Geister (1989) draws heavily on flautando playing and wind-like, pitchless sounds, as well as percussive and strumming gestures broken up by silences. Throughout the quartet tones are bowed in a way that reverses the usual attack-decay profile of the rapid or immediate attack and gradual decay, making for passages that sound as if they were run through a volume pedal. The final and most recent quartet, 2001’s Grido, embodies a brittle, often microtonally-flavored lyricism embedded in skittishly modernist phrasing.
In calling for unusual ways to produce sound from acoustic instruments, Lachenmann’s string quartets ultimately seem to be about the resistance of material to the energy applied to it. This resistance is implicit in all music—think of the tautness of the string pushing against the pressure of the bow as an ordinary tone is sounded—but Lachenmann takes this play of forces and pushes it to the point of crisis, amplifying it and thus bringing it to the center of the composition. Resistance reaches a crisis when instruments produce the kinds of sounds they weren’t designed or perfected to produce–one might say that the nature of the instrument itself resists the use to which it is being put. And it is from this that the drama of these quartets arises.
Refractions and Refractions Vol. 2 are the first two installments in clarinetist/composer Gleb Kanasevich’s ongoing effort to record music for clarinet by emerging composers. Kanasevich, a native of Belarus now living and working on the US East Coast, has a firm grounding in classical clarinet technique as well as an adventurous interest in contemporary solo and chamber work. The exhilaratingly performed music on both discs amply displays his refined approach to the instrument as well as his discernment in selecting stimulating new material to play.
Most of the tracks find Kanasevich in an electronically fostered or altered environment. A good example is the opening track from the first volume, Kanasevich’s Zyklus Part One. The clarinet’s restless lines here are set out against a recorded backdrop of electronically manipulated samples of string instruments, as well as the sound of at least one other clarinet. Fay Wang’s Inside Insides for bass clarinet and tape, sets out electronic rumbling and hissing and occasional synthetic percussion against the warm, rounded tone of the bass clarinet’s lower registers. The harder-edged Nausea, composed by Brendon Randall-Meyers, creates a heavy rock sound–complete with synthesized drums—as a setting for Kanasevich’s suitably distorted clarinet. Ken Ueno’s I Screamed at the Sea, contained, like Inside Insides and Nausea on Vol. 2, has wind-like sounds punctuated by the amplified clarinet’s long, descending, trilled, bent, overblown notes.
In contrast to the more aggressive, electronically-driven pieces on Vol. 2, the first volume highlights pieces for acoustic solo clarinet. Alican Camci’s restrained Bosluk Ve Telafi, whose repeated long tones are interspersed with short bursts of notes, subtly integrates multiphonics and microtonal fluctuations into its melodic development. Viet Cuong’s Zanelle is an almost defiantly melodic piece that eschews extended technique, but nonetheless sounds contemporary with its leaps of register and intervals. Ignis Fatuus by Brazilian-born composer Rodrigo Bussad is an introspective piece that brings out the instrument’s melancholy shadings, which are intermittently broken by a shriek or whimsical skip and jump.
The one outlier is Steve Reich’s New York Pulse, included on Vol.2. Reich is hardly an emerging young composer, but the piece was influential on Kanasevich and his generation of composers.
Composer Rand Steiger, five of whose works are presented here, has a long history of using electronic processing and amplification to modify the outputs of acoustic instruments. Thus it comes as no surprise that much of the work included in this release reflects an interest in the effects on sonority of digital enhancement.
As borne out in the five tracks included here, a central concern of Steiger’s music consists in the exploration and manipulation of timbre. Although the makeup and nature of the ensembles differ from composition to composition, a commonality to emerge from all of the music is the predominance of timbre as musical center of gravity.
The aptly named Résonateur (2005), commissioned on the occasion of Pierre Boulez’s 80th birthday, uses reverberation and delay, as well as computer-facilitated retuning, to bring out the resonant properties of acoustic instruments and electronic keyboards. This tends to fortify the instruments’ aural signatures, sharply defining each in relation to the others. The piece balances on a tension of contrasts between resounding long tones and the measured, atonal counterpoint of lines carried most noticeably by sampled harpsichord. The chime-like, metallic timbres brought to the fore here carry over to the piece that follows it, A Menacing Plume (2011). Although written as a program work about the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and its environmental consequences, A Menacing Plume can be listened to for the pure sensual stimulation of its sound sculpting built up out of glissandi and suspended harmonies. Elusive Peace (2000) draws on an entirely different palette of sound. Scored for rock drumkit and amplified cello, the piece is a study of contrasts of timbre, dynamics and density of motion. Slow moving planes of sound emanating from sustained open strings play off against hyperkinetic drumming, giving the impression of independent voices juxtaposed in separate sonic fields. The other duet, awhirl (2008) for piano and processing, uses digital delay to enrich the saturation of chromatic lines over a steadily moving chord progression. By contrast Elliott’s Instruments (2010), written in honor of composer Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday, is a largely pointillistic chamber work for a mixed ensemble of strings, winds, piano and percussion in which phrases are divided among the six acoustic instruments, creating rows of sound colors as well as tones.
Although digital technology plays a significant role in Steiger’s explorations, an at least equally important ingredient of all of these compositions is his fine sense of instrumental balance and contrast. This is most immediately apparent in the purely acoustic Elliott’s Instruments, but is also a critical factor in creating the rich textures in Résonateur and A Menacing Plume. And the technology never overshadows the fine performances by the acoustic ensemble, whose precise realizations bring this shimmering work to life.
Hannes Lingens: Four Pieces for Quintet [insub rec01]
Berlin composer Hannes Lingens’ Four Pieces for Quintet contains realizations of four of Lingens’ graphic scores as performed by Koen Nutters and Derek Shirley on double basses, Johnny Chang on viola, Michael Thieke on clarinet, and Lingens on accordion. The scores, which happily are included with the release, are elegantly simple designs consisting of rectangles and squares of four different colors plus white, arranged in five rows. For this performance each color was associated with a tone, to be held for a length of time presumably varying with the length of the square or rectangle in which the color occurs. The duration of each of the four realizations was set at five minutes.
The music that results from these performances is pure harmony; despite the instrumental variety had by mixing reeds and bowed strings, timbre comes across as something of a neutral value. Each musician plays long tones or pauses which overlap in such a way that chords of varying complexity and length arise and mutate. For example, the first of the quintets on the release, No. 2, has a predominantly lighter, consonant sound built on major thirds. No. 3 is more discordant, featuring minor seconds, while No. 4 mixes consonances and dissonances, with pitches held against one another in an unresolved tension eventually giving way to a startling ending on a major chord.
VA: Digital Discoveries 3: Joyrider (Recordings from the British Music Collection) [NMC DL3003]
Joyrider is the third installment of an eight volume series made up of contemporary British art music recorded during the last decade. The six compositions brought together in this volume, all of which are held in the British Music Collection archive, represent an eclectic sample of recent work from five composers.
Three of the pieces are for solo piano, given fine performances here by Jonathan Powell. The restless Nevermore and the darker, impressionistic Baracarolla, were composed by Powell, while Joyrider, a frenetic, discontinuous work by Geoff Hannan, crafts pianistic drama out of broken phrases and virtuosic flourishes. Powell’s interpretations bring out the specific character of each piece, individuating them clearly for the listener.
Evelyn Ficarra’s Submarine Revisited is a haunting sound collage inspired by the stealthy, and ultimately precarious, mode of existence peculiar to underwater sailors and their ships. The work draws on sound sources of a kind that give it the feel of a fictional documentary narrating and recreating events situated in an ambiguously remembered past.
The release’s highlights are two compositions by Bryn Harrison and James Saunders, both of which are performed by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze’s ensemble Apartment House. Harrison’s Four Parts to Center for electric guitar, violin, clarinet and cello develops through the varied repetition of short phrases and slow, microtonal glissandi. Much of the piece seems to takes place within a limited span of intervals and a similarly tight range of dynamics; the clustering and overlap of pitches and timbres is brought out nicely in the ensemble’s close playing. While the sound presents a surface always in flux, a cyclical or quasi-cyclical underlying structure makes itself felt throughout.
With Saunders’ #160304-[r], a modular work for clarinet, violin and cello, Apartment House gives another subtly engrossing performance. The piece’s soundworld is largely to be found in the thin atmosphere of the instruments’ extreme upper registers. As with Harrison’s piece, the dynamics are predominantly quiet, which brings out an essential sonic ethereality as well as the timbral enigma at the heart of the work. Given the combination of instruments and the techniques used—the strings, for example, often play high harmonics—it can often be difficult to tell which instrument is sounding at any given time. Saunders’ use of silences between sounds serves to structure the work by establishing relationships based on similarities and differences of pitch, duration and dynamics.
A stimulating collection indeed.
Decibel: Still and Moving Lines [pogus 21072-2]
The Australian ensemble Decibel specializes in performing new music integrating electronics with acoustic instruments. In this new release from Pogus the group presents engaging realizations of four works by composer Alvin Lucier, three of which are here given their recorded debut. The four compositions, all recorded live in Perth, span the years 1967-2002, with the most recent—Ever Present, the first track on the disc—being the only one to have appeared on a previous recording. The works are well-chosen and provide an excellent point of entry to Lucier’s oeuvre.
As a program opener, Ever Present pulls the listener immediately into Lucier’s hermetic sound world. Performed with flute, saxophone, piano and two sine wave generators, the piece creates an absorbing atmosphere of slow movement over a fundamental drone, the relatively short duration of the piano’s occasional notes contrasting with the held tones from the wind instruments. The piece has a horizontal rather than a vertical profile, which is to say that the tones of the various instruments are experienced as independent entities rather than as linked elements stacked into a single harmony. If slowly shifting and superimposed transparent planes of color made a sound, this would be it.
Carbon Copies (1989), also featuring saxophone, flute and piano but with recorded sound in place of the sine wave generators, takes us from Ever Present’s rarefied abstraction down to the mundane world captured in the field recordings that constitute its core. The piece has a tripartite structure, beginning with the playback of field recordings alone, which are then joined by the instruments. The third and final part eliminates the recordings, to leave the instruments by themselves. The piano and wind instruments’ contributions run to the timbral and episodic as the players set out to interpret the recorded sounds as mimetically as they can. In effect the field recordings serve as a kind of real-time, aural score for the musicians to realize.
Hands (1994) is a work for organ and hand movements, the latter being used in relation to the organ pipes in order to affect the sound emitted while sustained semitones are played. The dissonance of these minor second harmonies creates beats, trills and a generally unsettled sonic tension, while the hand movements coax slow, sometimes siren-like glissandi as well as changes in dynamics from the instrument.
The disc closes with the earliest composed work, Shelter (1967) for contact microphones, amplifiers, and enclosed space. The piece offers a commentary on the division of sonic space by architectural space by conveying sounds originating from outside the performance space—the “shelter” of the title—to a system of amplifiers, equalizers and speakers inside it. Contact microphones placed on structural supports enclosing the space pick up external sound as it vibrates through doors and walls and transmit it to the audio system. The present realization captures a quiet sound much like the background hum of a refrigerator or HVAC unit punctuated by what appear to be the sounds of musicians playing in distant rooms.
Christoph Schiller: Variations [at63]
This latest recording from Swiss composer/instrumentalist Christoph Schiller consists of an assemblage of seven improvisations for spinet, piano and amplified objects. The seven individual pieces function as constituent parts of a kind of canon, or linked sequence, of overlapping voices, each voice consisting in a sound source. Schiller recorded two improvisations each on spinet, objects and piano, respectively, and then layered them in order to create a suite of thickening and thinning sounds and textures.
The sequence opens with an improvisation for spinet alone, moves to an overlay of the two spinet pieces and then on to an overlay of spinet and objects, and continues in this vein until culminating with the second piano improvisation by itself. The sounds are sparse and organic, the creaks and scrapes of metal and wood punctuated at times by the resonance of tones from the piano or spinet. By virtue of the formal context Schiller creates, this democracy of sounds reveals itself to be, in essence, musical.
Alvin Lucier: Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press)
Music 109 is composer Alvin Lucier’s personal tour of some of the highlights of postwar musical experimentalism.
Lucier, a professor emeritus at Wesleyan University, has been at the forefront of sound art composition and performance since the 1960s. His 1965 work Music for Solo Performer employed EEG electrodes to detect brain waves that were subsequently amplified to vibrate percussion instruments; other work has made creative use of technology to create varied sonic phenomena. Many of his compositions are concerned with the acoustic properties of the spaces in which they are realized and the effects of those properties on the listener’s sense of perception. Along with composers Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and David Behrman, Lucier formed the Sonic Arts Union, which presented advanced works by the four from 1966-1976.
The book is a loosely structured collection of Lucier’s reflections on some of the milestone works of experimental music of the past fifty years or so. Lucier discusses specific pieces by John Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, as well as work by Ashley, Mumma and Behrman, and others. He offers insights, often based on first-hand experience, into the ways the compositions were written or performed, in many cases demystifying such matters as how exactly to realize graphic scores such as Wolff’s For 1, 2 or 3 People, Brown’s From Here, Cage’s Cartridge Music and Feldman’s King of Denmark. Lucier walks the reader step-by-step through the processes involved first in interpreting the marks on paper, and then in translating them into the appropriate actions. In doing this he draws on his experiences as a performer or conductor of the works in question.
Lucier is perhaps best known as the composer of I Am Sitting in a Room, the creation of which he describes in lively detail. It came about in spring 1969 in what Lucier describes as a “sordid” apartment in Middletown, Connecticut, where Lucier was teaching at Wesleyan. Using two borrowed Nagra tape recorders—state of the art technology in 1969—Lucier read a deliberately unremarkable text into one recorder, transferred the tape to the second recorder and played it back while recording on the first machine. He repeated the process through fifteen iterations, until he got a result that turned his recorded voice into an abstract pattern of sound that provided, in effect, a portrait of the room’s acoustic characteristics. It’s interesting to read that the inspiration for the text, which simply described what Lucier was doing while he was doing it, came from a specific performance by Judson Church dancer Trisha Brown.
Music 109 is adapted from the lectures Lucier delivered for his Introduction to Experimental Music course at Wesleyan. This accounts for the conversational tone—the reader often feels as if he or she is sitting in a room with Lucier, listening to him talk. Plain and direct-spoken and with an uncluttered prose style, Lucier easily blends analysis, anecdote and digression into a reader-friendly first-person account of some of the most interesting music to come out of the postwar period.
Alexander Sigman: Nominal/Noumenal (Carrier Records)
Nominal/Noumenal is a release of recent acoustic and electroacoustic chamber work by composer Alexander Sigman. Like his teacher Brian Ferneyhough, Sigman uses thickly notated scores to create complex compositions exploiting a sometimes dense, sometimes sparse arrangement of conventional and extended methods of sound production.
The seven pieces included in this release, conceived of as parts of two intersecting cycles, are scored for solo instruments as well as small ensembles of varied and sometimes unorthodox instrumentation. Entartete Musik 2, for example, combines viola and percussion to create a contrast between resonant low-pitched percussion and the comparatively bright timbres of the viola; a kind of rhythmic harmony follows from the overlap of irregular percussion strikes and the viola’s tremolo. The Shining Pillar of Anti-Beauty (int-0) for solo cello transforms the instrument’s ordinary sound profile through use of a microtonal scordatura, a lead mute, and selective amplification. The resulting voice somehow manages to be harsh and ethereal at the same time. The composition calls for an intriguing mixture of extended techniques and varied dynamics—not so much anti-beauty as beauty as seen from a different angle.
In some respects the recording’s centerpiece is Detritus I, scored for counter-tenor, chamber ensemble and electronics. Here again contrasting textures are set up, this time through the use of membrane and metal percussion, and the sound of the human voice doubled or opposed by trombone. Another layer of contrasts is encoded in the two texts Sigman sets: The fifth strophe of the proto-surrealist poem “Maldoror,” and Eric Gill’s “An Essay on Typography.” In many respects Detritus I epitomizes the work on this release which, with its often surprising juxtapositions of instruments and techniques, can be described with the well-known image from “Maldoror”: The chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissecting table.