AMN Reviews: Carl Testa – Sway Prototypes Volume 1; Sway Prototypes Volume 2 [Self-released]

In mid-2017, New Haven, Connecticut double bassist/composer Carl Testa began to develop a SuperCollider-based music processing system he called Sway. Testa envisioned an autonomous program that could take individual musicians’ sounds as inputs, perform signal analysis on them, and on the basis of the results obtained, respond by modifying them with a given effect. A two-volume set of four Sway-enhanced performances recorded between September, 2017 and October, 2018 documents how Testa implemented the idea over several iterations of his program.

As the tracks on both volumes demonstrate, Sway has been an organically evolving program, changing and adapting as circumstances warranted or as Testa wished. Each improvised performance featured the system at a different stage of its development–although all stages, even the earliest, show a high degree of sophistication in design and execution. For the earliest piece, Three Sections, recorded with the mixed ensemble of Erica Dicker on violin, Junko Fujiwara on cello, Louis Guarino, Jr. on trumpet, Andria Nicodemou on vibraphone, and Testa on double bass and electronics, Testa conducted the players and triggered the processing himself. On the next piece, the hour-long Quadrants for the same group with the addition of vocalist Anne Rhodes, Testa eschewed personal intervention in favor of using a pre-arranged timetable to regulate the process of effects assignments. By the time of Emergence, also for sextet, Sway had evolved to the point where, in place of a set timetable, it could control the changes in sound sculpting through a more fluid, real-time interactivity with the instruments.

What Sway does exceptionally well on the three ensemble pieces is compose with color. Whether controlled by human input, timed sequences or real-time response, Sway moves instruments in and out of the foreground and mixes their voices in varying and unpredictable combinations. The closest analogy to listening to these performances would be to watching a multicolored Calder mobile set in motion. The timbral richness of the instrumental input—high-, low- and middle-compass strings; brass; mallet percussion; and voice—and the players’ evident skill in interacting with each other and the program, are both crucial elements in these performances.

Which is why the last piece on Volume 2, Bloom, a solo improvisation for double bass recorded in Hamden, Connecticut in mid-October 2018, is so interesting for what it shows of what Sway does given the limited input of a single instrument. The sounds fed into the system are more austere and consequently serve to lay bare with a dramatic clarity the metamorphoses, distortions and enhancements Sway injects into the flow of a performance. The spare lines and episodic structure of Testa’s improvisation dovetail nicely with the pacing of the program’s shuttling between, and overlapping of, granular synthesis, pitch alteration, delay and other effects. Here one can hear quite clearly how the system works: how it creates a dialogue with itself as well as with the instrument fed into it.

AMN Reviews: Three Free Radicals x Liis Viira – Atlas of the Heavens [Bandcamp]

Three Free Radicals is actually two people: Minnesota electronics artist Scott L. Miller and Estonian guitarist Mart Soo. Miller and Soo have previously collaborated on two albums; for this third album, they were joined by Estonian harpist Liis Viira. The result is a sound centered within a neat triangulation of sharp-edged electronics, atmospheric guitar, and harmonically centered harp.

As becomes apparent from the beginning, adding Viira to the core duo was an inspired move.  Miller and Soo are particularly adept at creating textural music, setting out shifting densities of sound underwritten equally well by the thick abrasiveness of the electronic hum, drone and feedback as by the reverb-soaked shimmering of the guitar. Soo, in particular, is able to create a brooding ambiance suggestive of empty landscapes: call it the soundtrack to unpopulated plains of the imagination. To all of this Viira brings a harmonic focus that manifests itself in chord progressions both cyclical and irregular, or in ostinatos and melodic lines hinting at modal harmony. In addition, the crystalline, staccato sounds of the harp contrast most dramatically with the denser interactions of guitar and electronics. On a piece like M12 Viira supplements Soo and Miller’s underlying polyrhythms with a set of on- and off-beats of her own, while on Sagittarius she sets the music within the angular frame of an altered mixolydian mode.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Thomas DeLio – Selected Compositions III (1986-2017) [Neuma 450-120]

Selected Compositions III (1986-2017) is Neuma’s third compilation of work by composer Thomas DeLio (b. 1951). As with the previous two CD releases, which surveyed his work of 1991-2013 and of 1972-2015, Selected Compositions (1986-2017) collects both acoustic instrumental and electroacoustic pieces, with a particular emphasis on DeLio’s settings of texts.

When writing about the second album in the series, I characterized DeLio’s work as embodying an aesthetic of intermittence—a focus on sound as such standing alone in well-defined islands of time. The pieces collected on this third album further elaborate DeLio’s deep engagement with the intermittences of sound. One area where this engagement makes itself especially felt is in DeLio’s settings of spoken texts.

On this as on previous releases, DeLio presents compositions that take recordings of the poetry of P. Inman as source material. Two pieces appear here: by parch reading (2016) and “decker” (1998). DeLio has said he has a particular affinity for Inman’s work and it isn’t hard to see why: what DeLio does with sound is analogous to what Inman does with language, which is to say, breaking it not at the joints one would expect, but instead dismantling it across those joints, the better to alienate it from its usual function—for Inman and language, the semantic or meaning-conveying function; for DeLio and sound, the function afforded by temporal continuity–and to recompose it in unexpected ways. Inman’s poetry recasts words and phrases from semantic elements into a kind of musique concrète of utterance; in a similar way, DeLio breaks sounds up to play off against each other as a series of timbral contrasts and likenesses. When DeLio electronically modifies recordings of Inman’s poetry a kind of multiplier effect is at work; what results are conflicts and concordances of consonants and vowels–an abstract music of the voice.

This same use of fragmentation is a significant factor in the instrumental works; for example, the two pieces for percussion ensemble: 2002’s wave / s for marimba and one-person percussion ensemble, and the earliest composition in the set, the two-movement Against the Silence…of 1984-1985. On both pieces sounds—a wash of cymbal, a trill on the marimba, scattered strikes on tuned and untuned surfaces of wood, metal, and membrane—play against the silence that breaks them apart and at the same time frames them. In fact it may be that this idea of silence—or at any rate a negative audio space—as a frame for sound is given its most complete expression in the series of six brief works from 2017 that appear interspersed throughout the album: each piece in itself traces silence as a framing device while at the same time serving to frame the works on either side. It’s a central motif of DeLio’s, put to work at two different levels.

Shelter Press Releases “SPECTRES”

Shelter Press with the support of INA GRM has published the new book “Spectres Composer l’écoute / Composing listening”. This book is the first in an annual series. The first edition features writings in English and French by François Bayle, Jim O’Rourke, Daniel Terruggi, Stephen O’Malley, Elaine Radigue, Chris Watson, Brunhild Ferrari, Beatriz Ferreyra, Espen Sommer Eide, Drew Daniel, François J. Bonnet, Régis Renouard Larivière, and Félicia Atkinson.

Each issue of “SPECTRES” will have a different subtitle / focus.  “This book has been conceived as both a prism and a manual. Following the “traditional” arc of electroacoustic composition (listen—record—compose—deploy—feel), each of the contributions collected together here focuses in on a personal aspect, a fragment of that thrilling territory that is sonic and musical experimentation.

Although the term “experimental music” may now have be understood as referring to a genre, or even a particular style, we ought to hold on to the original use of this term, which was based more on an approach than on any particular aesthetic line to be followed. The experimental is first and foremost a spirit, the spirit of the exploration of unknown territories, a spirit of invention which sees musical composition more as a voyage into uncertain territories than as a self-assured approach working safe within the bosom of fully mapped out and recognized lands.”

More info at Shelter Press

AMN Reviews: Catching Up With If, Bwana

Throughout 2018, If, Bwana—the experimental electroacoustic music project of Al Margolis—has been quietly releasing a series of works based on the often-subtle electronic manipulation of acoustic instruments. Margolis has long specialized in creating textural works of assemblage from sound samples or full recordings of instruments played by others—for example, bassoon, flute, cello and saxophone. On these recent recordings, though, things take an interesting turn in that Margolis plays the instruments himself. His approach is unorthodox—he describes it as “extended or remedial technique” or “figuring out the right way to play the [instrument] wrong.” Right or wrong, his instrumental performances form an effective foundation for the pieces he builds over them. (Full disclosure here: I’ve had the pleasure of contributing recorded double bass performances as source material for previous If, Bwana projects.)

On December’s Panique, Margolis multitracks recordings of himself on alto saxophone. The piece is structured as a slow crescendo, starting out with air notes and gradually building bits of pitched phrases into an echoing polyphony. Also from December is QA, two pieces—one double-tracked and one triple-tracked–for ARP synthesizer played quietly. The basic material here consists of long, high-pitched tones that sound like glockenspiel keys played with a bow, separated by silences. Margolis works this material into pieces that seem to turn audio space into an uncluttered, three-dimensional environment. OK…Now Go Away, from November, is what Margolis ironically describes as If, Bwana’s “hit single”: a three-minute track for electronically-manipulated bassoon. Margolis has always had a real affinity for the instrument—as played by others—so it seems natural that he should take it up himself, as he does here. What he does with it is create a sparse, chirping piece that, in a more just world, would indeed be at the top of the charts with a bullet. In July, Margolis released Japanese by Spring, three tracks based on recordings of studio improvisations for flute, ARP synthesizer, and detuned accordion. On these tracks the layering process—along with, presumably, the tuning of the accordion–results in beats and other microtonal effects.

Finally, March’s WTF 10: Trumpet, Amplified, which contains three tracks based on a studio improvisation for trumpet fed through two amplifiers, is interesting for the way that it presents the sequence of steps Margolis used to get from the basic material to (a) final result. In effect, it’s a thumbnail illustration of his working process. The first track is the amplified trumpet improvisation by itself—the starting point for what happens next. What that is, is Margolis creating a second piece by taking the track and layering it while changing pitches and durations, and then editing that piece to create a third piece that replicates the duration of the original improvisation. In its own way, it’s a kind of cyclical suite that sums up one dimension of If, Bwana’s multivalent and ongoing body of work.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Alfonso García de la Torre & Guillermo Lauzurika / Ensemble Sinkro [Bandcamp]

Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital of the Basque Autonomous Community; it is also the home of the Ensemble Sinkro, a group playing acoustic and electroacoustic works by contemporary composers. The group was formed in 2005, although its roots reach back to the establishment of the Jesús Guridi Ensemble and the Electroacoustic Music Laboratory of the Conservatory of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the mid-1980s. From the latter, in particular, Ensemble Sinkro seems to have derived its interest in the integration of new technologies with the compositional methods and instrumental techniques of the Western art music tradition. Recently, the ensemble has been issuing a series of recordings that provide an aural window into the fine work being made by the current generation of Basque composers, among whom are Alfonso García de la Torre and Guillermo Lauzurika.

Música de Cámara [CD010] collects eight of García de la Torre’s electroacoustic chamber works from the period 1998-2014. García de la Torre (1964), a native of Vitoria-Gasteiz, came to composition with a background in electronic engineering as well as music; among his studies were courses at the Computing and Electronic Music Laboratory in Madrid and at IRCAM in Paris. His work often involves multimedia and encompasses sound art as well as more traditional instrumental composition. The tracks on Música de Cámara demonstrate his deftness at melding electronic technologies with solo acoustic instruments or small ensembles. What makes each unique is what all have in common: a finely honed sensitivity to the way that electronics can bring out the particular natural characteristics of a given instrument. For example, Un Caracol Manchado (2000), for tenor saxophone and electronics, is a tightly integrated work that uses voice doubling, pitch-shifting and other processes to create the illusion of a ghost saxophone shadowing the actual instrument. By contrast, 2005’s Dark for baritone saxophone and electronics maintains each element as an independent yet complementary voice. García de la Torre describes Danba II (2014) for flute, cello, percussion, piano, and electronics as a piece exploring the affinities of these very different instruments’ sound characteristics; his non-hierarchical approach to the material leads to a naturally pointillistic setting for solo voices representing independent colors.

Like García de la Torre, under whom he studied, composer/pianist Guillermo Lauzurika (1968) is a native of Vitoria-Gasteiz. Also like García de la Torre, Lauzurika’s compositions are attuned to the opportunities afforded music by new technologies and multimedia environments. His background includes work with jazz ensembles as well as dancers, improvisers and experimental musicians; currently he teaches electroacoustic music and serves as Ensemble Sinkro’s artistic director. His portrait release [CD007] comprises six works including a piece for solo piano, three for solo instruments and electronics, a work for two pianos and two percussion instruments, and one for guitar, percussion, and electronics. As with García de la Torre’s collection, Lauzuritka’s includes pieces for tenor saxophone and electronics and baritone saxophone and electronics. On both pieces, Lauzuritka artfully integrates extended and conventional saxophone techniques into the surrounding electronic soundscape. Moving over to an entirely different sound palette, MOmmm (MI) momNN(ni)c for guitar, percussion and electronics elucidates the sometimes unexpected timbral convergences of nylon string acoustic guitar on the one hand, and drums on the other. The highlight of the recording is Zatiketa, in which Lauzurika skillfully weaves together the parts for piano and pitched percussion to afford their meeting on a common ground defined by the brusque, albeit melodious, sounds of things struck.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Aviva Endean – cinder: ember: ashes [Sofa 569]; Lea Bertucci – Metal Aether [NNA 108]

For better and for worse, “extended technique” describes the use of unconventional or nontraditional methods of playing an otherwise conventional instrument. There’s another sense in which the technical resources of an instrument can be extended, though, and one that’s more literal: the augmentation of the instrument with preparations, electronic devices, or the intervention of external objects of some other sort. Two stimulating new releases of music for solo reed instruments contain pieces played with extended technique in both of these senses.

The pieces on Aviva Endean’s cinder : ember : ashes, her first solo release, grew out of a practice of playing simply for herself, without larger agenda or ulterior motive. Endean is often a collaborative player, so her turn inward here would seem to represent something of a change: not quite woodshedding in anticipation of a performance, and not quite a performance either, at least not one directed toward an audience other than herself. More of an assisted introspection, externalized in sound. Thus there’s an almost autohypnotic quality to much of the album, the result of Endean’s proclivity for creating variations on motifs made up of a minimal collection of pitches which she orders, expands, condenses or distorts—all the while still somehow retaining their essential profiles. Endean’s signature sound throughout consists in fluctuations of pitch and timbre that find their centers of gravity in recurring long tones or simple pitch sequences. The opening track, burst in black : under for contrabass clarinet, is exemplary. There, Endean coaxes a changing set of overtones and timbres from pitches extending into an engulfing empty space. On apparition : above Endean augments the clarinet with a tympani, whose head she uses to amplify and modify the clarinet’s natural voice, giving it a quasi-electronic edge, a wind-like hollowness, or turning it into a facsimile of a trombone. Similarly, on vapour : between she manipulates the instrument—again, a clarinet—by running it through a pocket amplifier, which helps to foreground the fluctuations of the piece’s mantra-like, two-pitch quasi-melody. On the more extraverted undulations : behind, Endean plays umtshingo, a Zulu flute producing overblown harmonics, in conjunction with an effects pedal.

The concise, repeated themes that permeate much of cinder : ember : ashes find a counterpart in Patterns for Alto, the opening track of Metal Aether, a recording for solo alto saxophone and electronics by Lea Bertucci. Bertucci seems less directed toward the meditative potential of repeated sound cycles and more interested in exploring the harmonic implications of accumulating tones and overtones. Patterns for Alto layers its tones through speed; the piece is a rapidly pulsing performance with a well-defined tonal center of gravity, reminiscent in an oblique way of some of the classic Minimalist pulse pieces built over relatively simple harmonies. With the two tracks Accumulations and Sustain and Dissolve, Bertucci explores tonal interactions within a more extended time frame. Both pieces deliver what their titles plainly promise: harmonic development consisting in the piling up, lingering and jostling of tones separated by variably spaced intervals. It’s all in the overtones and the micro-scaled interference patterns that result from the way tones are juxtaposed and layered. The textural insight Bertucci has to offer here is that density isn’t (only, always) a matter of the simultaneous aggregation of sound events, but of the exploration of the detail of any given sound event’s microstructures.

Daniel Barbiero