AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Steve Ashby – Winter Birds & Crackles and Codes [Bandcamp]

a0762889049_2The atmosphere is an open field of communications, the air a chaotic meeting ground of audible sounds as well as a more recondite network of radio and television signals, radar emissions and the effluvia of various wireless devices. Steve Ashby’s Crackles and Codes and Winter Birds present two different but complementary portraits of the waves pervading the air.

a3575064408_2Ashby, a guitarist, composer and electronics experimentalist in Richmond, VA, assembles sound elements sourced from field recordings and composed passages and constructs them into thick soundscapes suggestive of particular times or locations. Winter Birds, a five-track work based on field recordings taken during the winter of 2015, is evocative of the damp, grey winters of the Mid-Atlantic region. Ashby sampled birdsong, wind chimes and other sounds in the air and processed them into a sonic image that recalls those moments at twilight when birdsong becomes particularly salient. Crackles and Codes is a single drone-based track that seems to call up the ghosts of untuned radios. Over the course of its eighteen and a half minutes a slowly moving, foreboding melody on guitar emerges and disappears into a thick background of resonant, suspended harmony.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Ted Moore – Gilgamesh & Enkidu [Ravello RR7926]

rr7926 -gilgamesh-eknkiduGilgamesh and Enkidu is Minnesota composer Ted Moore’s recasting of the ancient Akkadian epic poem as a six-movement work for string quartet and electronics.

For Moore as both composer and musician, the integration of electronics with acoustic instruments puts him on known ground. His compositions frequently involve the use of SuperCollider for real-time sound processing and manipulation, and he regularly performs on laptop with wind player Kyle Hutchens in the improvisational duo Binary Canary.

For Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Moore augmented a traditional string quartet with himself on laptop. The string instruments’ sounds were fed into SuperCollider, which Moore used to create a fifth line cued from and complementing the strings’ lines. The presence of the electronics is subtle and serves to maintain the work’s focus on the writing for the strings. These in turn make equally subtle use of extended techniques, which are used in the service of the expressive content of the quartet rather than as ends in themselves. Still, they can provide significant thematic material, as for example in the first movement, when the cello plays a motif centered on bouncing the wood of the bow on and off the strings, or in the third movement, where the quartet’s expressive counterpoint unravels into siren-like, descending glissandi.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Dario Palermo – Difference Engines [AMRN040]

amrn040_cover_hiThis, the first CD dedicated entirely to work by composer Dario Palermo, features three substantial electroacoustic works written between 2009 and 2012.

Palermo (b. 1970) has been involved with the use of new technologies in music since the early 1990s. His background includes studies with Giorgio Colombo Taccani and Giovanni Verrando and others, including Gerard Grisey, as well as in orchestral and chamber performance. His work, as typified in the three pieces presented here, is built around the confrontation of electronics with acoustic instruments or the human voice.

RO-Premiére danse de la lune (2012), the newest composition represented here, is for amplified drum kit and real-time electronics. The individual pieces of the kit are treated as separate instruments within an ensemble, each of which can be differentiated in terms of their characteristic ranges and timbres. The electronics tend to enhance rather than erase the sonic signatures of the drums and cymbals—there’s added resonance from reverb or delay but very little outright dismantling of the native sounds. Percussionist Milo Tamez leverages both conventional and expanded techniques in order to explore the available timbres to the fullest extent, often exploiting color variety by opposing the high and low frequency sounds of cymbal and tom-tom.

The nearly half-hour long The Difference Engine (2010-2011) is, fittingly, the centerpiece of the recording. This work for amplified string quartet with real-time electronics and mezzo soprano served as the soundtrack for a multimedia theatrical production, also called The Difference Engine, staged in London in October 2011. The piece, given a bravura performance by the Arditti String Quartet, is a fragmentary yet coherent construction of more or less saturated passages of arco and pizzicato playing, many of which make dramatic use of the instruments’ extreme upper registers. Microtones and glissandi make for a highly fluid tonal ground constantly shifting underfoot. Mezzo soprano Catherine Carter, who appeared in the London stage production, blends in with the strings as a kind of fifth instrument, playing with and against the strings’ lines.

Trance-Five abstract stations (2009) for the solo voice of Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg and live electronics is in a sense the mirror image of RO. Just as the latter piece employs electronics to underscore the essential sound of the drum kit, Trance uses them instead to distort and rearrange the voice—to alienate it from itself as it were, and make it into an abstract other.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: San Francisco Tape Music Center – Music from the Tudorfest [New World Records 80762-2]

81QdpSvthxL._SX425_Over the course of six evenings in spring, 1964, the San Francisco studio of radio station KPFA was the site of an exciting presentation of experimental music and proto-performance art cosponsored by KPFA and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Initiated by composer/musician Pauline Oliveros and curated by pianist David Tudor, the aptly titled Tudorfest featured new and recent work by John Cage, Oliveros, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier and George Brecht. A selection of performances from those evenings has been brought together in this historically important three-CD set.

The Tape Music Center was the natural choice for undertaking an event like the Tudorfest. Established in 1961 as a studio and performance venue for Bay Area experimental composers and musicians, the center played a key role in fostering new music and intermedia and acted as a kind of bridge between the West Coast performing arts avant-garde and the nascent counterculture. The two groups shared a communal mentality manifesting itself in the spirit of spontaneous invention and an openness to the moment; the arrow of influence here may well have run in either direction. Thus the Tudorfest combined improvisation—embodied in Oliveros’ work for her accordion and Tudor’s newly adopted bandoneon, with vocal contributions from a sporadically gregarious mynah bird—with open form compositions by Cage and Ichiyanagi as well as conceptually-oriented work by Brecht and Lucier. (Because these latter were quasi-theatrical performance pieces relying on a visual element, they were not represented on the release.)

The Cage pieces included here were composed during a time when Cage was turning from chance-generated compositions to compositions employing indeterminacy as a structuring principle. Sometimes this entailed creating scores on transparencies that could be superimposed in varying combinations (Music Walk, Atlas Eclipticalis and Variations II); sometimes it meant scoring works as a series of pages to be chosen at the performer’s discretion (Concert for Piano and Orchestra); sometimes it involved allowing the performer to choose ways to prepare an instrument (34’46.776” for Two Pianos).

Perhaps the most notorious of these indeterminate works—notorious because of its legendary mishandling by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic just weeks before its realization at the Tudorfest—was Atlas Eclipticalis, performed at the Tudorfest in tandem with an electronic version of Winter Music by a sixteen piece ensemble notable for including Tudor on piano, Stuart Dempster on trombone, Oliveros on tuba, Loren Rush on double bass, Morton Subotnick on clarinet, and future Mother of Invention Ian Underwood on flute and piccolo. The need for the performers to realize the work as a kind of collaboration with the composer is encoded in the orchestration; Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-1962), like the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-1958), calls for each member of the ensemble to function as a soloist with a separate part. The resulting sound is a kaleidoscopic constellation of notes and noises entering and exiting individually, sometimes sounding alone and sometimes overlapping. The less conventionally scored chance work Music Walk (1957) for piano, radios and other sound makers, and Variations II (1961), for any kind of sound maker, share with Atlas an audio profile made up of discontinuous sound events spread out or clustered into an unpredictable overall texture.

Cage’s 1954 time-length composition 34’46.776” for prepared piano opens the set and is in many respects the most compelling work included. The chance-composed work was originally written for Tudor and premiered at Donaueschingen; it was accompanied by 31’57.9864,” another, simpler duration work for prepared piano that Cage wrote for himself to play while Tudor played 34’46.776.” The works’ pitches were specified but the matter of which preparations to use and how to place them during the course of the performance were left up to the performers. As interpreted by Tudor and Dwight Peltzer (the latter playing 31’57.9864”), the work is a tour de force of linear klangfarbenmelodie. Given the ways the pianos were prepared, some pitches are left with their natural colors, some are muted or made to buzz or rattle, some are simply rendered into pitchless sounds. The interaction between Tudor and Peltzer allows lines to develop with a marked clarity as phrasal continuity is maintained throughout constant changes of pitched and unpitched timbres passing back and forth between the two pianists.

The two Ichiyanagi compositions included in the set are two versions of Music for Piano No. 4 (1960), one electric and one acoustic. Ichiyanagi’s score consists of enigmatic verbal instructions which the performer must then translate into concrete actions. Tudor’s interpretation entailed taking objects and rubbing them against the outside of the piano. (The electronic version calls for putting contact microphones on the objects.) What Tudor elicits from the instrument is in some real sense the sound of a piano, albeit one whose strings are left untouched.

In the fifty years since the Tudorfest the idea that musical performances can encompass sounds and gestures outside of traditional conventions is, if not universally accepted, at the very least admissible. This wasn’t the case in 1964, and it’s therefore significant that the critical response to the Tudorfest—to judge from Alfred Frankenstein’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle—was, in contrast to the hostile response Cage’s work found in New York the February before, sympathetic. In fact, the Bay Area seems to have been unusually open to experimentation with and between art forms as well as to contacts between the art music avant-garde and musicians working in other genres. So much so that by the time of the Trips Festival in January 1966 the local center of cultural gravity was shifting from the avant-garde to the psychedelic bands, many of whose members had attended Tape Music Center events and had been inspired by what they saw and heard. This set is a valuable artifact documenting one moment from that time of great ferment.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: David Rosenboom – Zones of Influence [pogus 21074-2]

William Winant 1
William Winant 1 (Photo credit: michaelz1)

David Rosenboom’s Zones of Influence, composed in 1984-1985, is a five-part work for solo percussion and computer generated compositional algorithms. The composition, which is significant for the innovative way in which it connected acoustic instruments with real-time processing, was written for percussionist William Winant, who performs it here.

Although the work was written as a solo for Winant, in a sense it serves as a feature for a second performer as well. This “performer” is the Touché computer assisted digital instrument, a keyboard designed by Rosenboom and Donald Buchla at a time when MIDI technology being developed but had not yet come into wide use. With Touché, Rosenboom was able to combine Winant’s varied array of pitched and unpitched percussion instruments with live processing in a way that was groundbreaking at the time and still is provocative today. Happily, Pogus has issued the complete work, the first time ever on a recording.

Touché’s role in shaping the overall texture of the work is immediately apparent in the way it supplements the instruments’ timbral qualities. Like many processing interfaces, Touché creates novel timbres, some of which conserve something of the acoustic instruments’ sound characteristics and some of which appear quite alien. Overall there is a tendency toward timbres of a sleek-surfaced, metallic cast—sometimes sounding as if they were produced by a hypertrophied toy piano–which contrast markedly with the sounds of Winant’s wood and membrane instruments. Particularly dramatic examples of this contrast can be found in Winding of a Spring Tripartite Structure for three snare drums, and Closed Attracting Trajectories Melody Set 2, for marimba and xylophone.

Beyond the surface stratum of sounds, the electronics’ interventions alter Winant’s performances at the compositional level. Rosenboom takes patterns of tones or sounds produced by the performer and processes them with real time compositional algorithms. A good example of this is in Zones’ final section, where a set of arpeggios and glissandi on violin—played by Rosenboom, as it happens—is subjected to accelerating changes. By using recombinatory operations the program alters the violin’s pitches, phrasing and tempos, sometimes quite dramatically. The traditional value of thematic development is abstracted and augmented by a multiplication of contrapuntal lines, leading to a densely complex surface sound. Extended to the work as a whole, Rosenboom’s compositional processing makes for an especially dynamic structure built up of proliferating and interpenetrating lines.

Also included in this two-disc set is Study for Zones, a kind of prototype work in which Rosenboom experimented with early versions of the algorithms that would go into the making of the final work.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Andrew Raffo Dewar – Interactions Quartet [brd 068]

Andrew Raffo Dewar
Andrew Raffo Dewar (Photo credit: michaelz1)

The “interactions” of the title can be read as referring not only to the highly refined interactions among the four players throughout these eleven tracks, but to the well-proportioned interaction of composed phrases and improvised sections characteristic of the music presented here. All were composed by Andrew Raffo Dewar, who also plays soprano saxophone.

The five Interactions making up the CD’s first half encompass everything from Dewar’s turbulent sax cadenzas to asymmetrical melodies played in unison on reeds (Dewar, along with Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and English horn), electric guitar (John Shiurba) and percussion (Gino Robair). The Piece for Four Instruments, dedicated to Earle Brown, is on the whole sparser, although its pointillistic sections are counterbalanced by long tones in unison or stacked in dissonant, often microtonal, intervals.

Dewar’s saxophone is a dominant voice throughout, alternating rapid flurries of notes with prolonged, strident tones that are gradually transmuted through microtonal deviations and changes in relative duration. Bruckmann’s reeds bring a likeness in range and timbre to the soprano saxophone, but this likeness paradoxically makes for a certain pungency during dissonant passages. Shiurba’s guitar is essential to framing and offsetting the other instruments through doubling and counterpoint as well as percussive interventions, while Robair’s use of percussion and electronics reflects his uncanny sense of when to be present and when not to be.

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Jorge Antunes – In Defense of the Machine

Jorge Antunes: In Defense of the Machine [Pogus 21067-2]

Jorge Antunes, a good selection of whose work appears on this latest release from Pogus, is a Brazilian composer known as that country’s earliest explorer of electroacoustic music. Currently president of the Brazilian Society for Electroacoustic Music, Antunes has been composing with electronics since the early 1960s. The compositions collected on this CD cover a good portion of his earlier and later works, spanning the periods 1965-1968 and 1995-2003. What all have in common is an organic, complementary relationship between conventional instruments or compositional elements and electronic sounds.

Among the disc’s highlights are Insubstituivel 2a, Mixolydia and Rituel Violet. Insubstituivel 2a matches prerecorded electronic sounds to a live cello; the recording supplies a slightly off-kilter five-beat ostinato to support cellist Guerra Vicente’s melody line. Mixolydia, written for Russian therminist Lydia Kavina—who performs the piece here—sets a mixolydian melody for the theremin against an intermittently rhythmic backdrop of electronic sounds on tape. Rituel Violet for tenor saxophone and electronics is an example of what Antunes calls chromophonic music, or music composed according to a notion of sound-to-color correspondence. On this piece, Daniel Kientzy’s saxophone inventively draws out the harmonic implications of the sustained tones that make up the electronic background.