Quantum Violin, an electroacoustic collaboration for Austrian violinist Mia Zabelka and Canadian composer/electronics artist Glen Hall, comprises fourteen tracks of violin that has undergone electronic modification, dismantling, rearrangement and reassembly. The album took shape in Vienna and Toronto during the covid years of 2020 and 2021 and consequently seems to have been a virtual collaboration—if so, it fittingly represents a kind of sonic spooky action at a distance, as was said of subatomic quantum phenomena themselves. A hint of the actual sound of the recording is given at the end of Hall’s bio, where he notes that, in addition to his musical work, he is a scholar of William Burroughs’ cut-up literary technique. And many of the tracks do sound like the musical analogue of a cut-up work. Through electronic processing the sound of Zabelka’s violin—plucked, bowed, and pushed to the limits of what the instrument was designed to do—breaks into fragments that evade, overflow, and double back on themselves. On Quantum Violin #8 the voice of Japanese cyberpunk author Kenji Siratori, reading from an original text, provides a ghostly undercurrent counterpointing Zagbelka’s vocodered violin.
Pianist/composer Duane Pitre’s Omniscient Voices for justly tuned piano and electronics is a paradoxical album: a collection of music both lushly seductive and subtly disquieting all at once. For this set of five short-to-medium length pieces, Pitre composed piano motifs, largely consisting of brief phrases blending into chords, and used them as input for a generative computer program to convert them in real time into microtonal electronic sounds. The piano parts have a minimal quality to them—they’re enunciated as pitch-limited, discrete events allowed to decay gradually—whereas the electronics have a broader orchestral sweep and a more pronounced rhythmic continuity. The harmonies are euphonic and warmly enveloping, but the just tuning lends them a slightly off-kilter quality that shows up as a hint of sourness around the edges.
The superb contemporary music ensemble Yarn/Wire—percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg, and pianist/keyboardists Ning Yu and Laura Berger—is known as much for its willingness to transgress the limits of musical convention as it is for its performance prowess. Both qualities are on display with a pair of simultaneously released albums of very different kinds of new music, one of fully notated compositions within an expansive notion of modern small ensemble chamber music, and the other an unnotated exploration of extended techniques and unconventional instrumentation.
The album of traditionally notated work is Tonband, a set containing one composition each by German composer Enno Poppe and Swiss composer Wolfgang Heiniger, and one composition by both together. The first composition on the album, Poppe’s knottily acoustic, two-movement Feld (2007/2017), has the most conventionally Modern sound of the three. This is particularly true of the second movement, an expanding field of sound developed out of dissonant piano stabs and accumulating fragmentary rhythmic cells underscored by snare drum. The centerpiece is the title work, Poppe and Heiniger’s collaboration from 2008/2012. Tonband is an absorbing thirty-minute-long, two-movement electroacoustic composition involving a complex system of live electronics in which signals from contact-mic’d percussion are fed to the pianists, here playing electronic keyboards, who manipulate pitches and timbres and fabricate melodies shaped by the percussionists’ sounds and gestures. As might be expected, the result is a soundworld that stretches the timbral imagination, but even during the more extreme passages of sonic distortion, the percussionists’ gestures are still discernible beneath the clangorous surface. Heiniger’s Neumond (2018) at an economical nine minutes long is the shortest composition on the album; it is also the most “electronic”-sounding of the three. Both pianists play MIDI keyboards while the percussionists, in addition to playing a battery of wood, membrane, and metal instruments, sing wordlessly along.
Into the Vanishing Point, a 2019 work by composer Annea Lockwood, is the Yarn/Wire track on the album Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point. A very different proposition from the work on Tonband. the piece is the result of a collaborative process in which Lockwood set out a general structure and then, through playing, listening and discussing, the ensemble together with the composer shaped the sonic details. And these details make for a sound that is very sparse indeed. Through a combination of unconventional instruments and conventional instruments unconventionally played, Yarn/Wire create a porous texture of largely unpitched sounds that, as the title has it, are poised just at the point of vanishing. The other composition on Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point is Becoming Air (2018), a technically demanding solo work for trumpeter Nate Wooley.
NuDaf an hour-long, electroacoustic drone work, is the newest release from composer Phill Niblock. Composed in 2020, the piece is constructed out of a series of recordings bassoonist Dafne Vicente-Sandoval made in Cologne in 2015, some of which were used in Niblock’s shorter, 2016 composition Praised Fan. For NuDaf, Niblock layered Vicente-Sandoval’s long tones rather sparingly, creating unisons, near-unisons separated by microtones, and slowly-changing, sometimes startling harmonies. Because Niblock avoids building massive blocks of sound, the piece is dense yet always harmonically legible.
Violinist/composer Tom Chiu also offers a layered electroacoustic work on The Live One, a two-CD set that features Chiu in solo, duo, trio, and quartet settings, most of which were captured live. It is a fine portrait of a versatile artist. The piece is Into the Forest (2011), whose basic material is a set of brief violin passages processed and assembled (by Terence Pender) into a moving work by turns melodic and abstract. RETROCON (2015) for string quartet, is a relentlessly dynamic, dramatic piece performed by the Flux Quartet (Chiu and Conrad Harris on violins; Max Mandel on viola; and Felix Fan on cello) the recurring theme to which is an undulating swarm of arpeggiated chords seemingly threatening to tip over into an abyss of emotional chaos. Chiu’s Duo Improvisation 16741 with modular synthetist Michael Schumacher, recorded live in 2017, likewise takes as its starting point a rapidly bowed arpeggio, but it very quickly develops into a broad exploration of pure sound and extended technique. Extended technique is also very much on display in BABIP, a live solo recording from 2008. The wryly titled deKonstrukt (2013) is another live solo performance, but here Chiu in fine postmodern form appropriates quotations from classical music’s past which he juxtaposes and loops with original material as well. The Live One also includes a 2020 beat-driven trio improvisation with Dan Joseph on hammer dulcimer and Jason Candy on modular synthesizer and beats.
One of the exciting new musical territories opened up by the technical advances of the postwar era was that of electronic and electroacoustic music. Whether in the guise of purely electronic works created for early synthesizers like Princeton’s RCA Mark II or the San Francisco Tape Music Center’s Buchla, or works for fixed media and acoustic orchestral instruments, electronic technologies for sound production, storage and reproduction gave composers and performers access to vast new sound worlds. The music on composer Robert Gross’ fine album Chronicles situates itself firmly within this now-venerable tradition.
Gross has a broad-based background that includes television and film soundtrack work, music theory and analysis, and composition for orchestra as well as for electronic and electroacoustic instrumentation. On Chronicles—the title is taken from a series of electronic and electroacoustic works Gross has composed, several of which are included on the album–Gross’ instrument of choice is the Absynth semi-modular synthesizer, which he plays solo as well as paired with piano, guitar, horn and voices.
Gross’ solo work is featured most forcefully on Chronicles XIV (Charles Wuorinen in Memoriam), a monumental thirty-minute-long memorial to the late composer who in 1970 was the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music for an electronic work, Time’s Encomium, which was realized on Princeton’s Mark II. Gross’ piece is a tour-de-force of pitch-oriented music that recreates some of the classic timbres of early electronic music while still maintaining a contemporary profile of its own. On Chronicles XIII for classical guitar and synthesizer Gross creates a truly dialogic encounter for acoustic guitar, given a subtley etched performance by Daniel Lippel, and electronics. The work is tightly choreographed, with each instrument completing the other’s lines or complementing the other’s rhythmic accents. Like Chronicles XIII, Chronicles VIII for piano (Jeanette Louise Yaryan) closely winds the two separate parts together into a complex tissue of sound, in addition to fomenting a rapid exchange of foreground and background functions between the two instruments. Both Chronicles XV for horn (Christopher Griffin) and synthesizer, and Chronicles XVII for mezzo-soprano (Lori Joachim Fredrics) and synthesizer, play largely on the timbral contrasts between the Absynth and its duet partners. On all of the electroacoustic pieces Gross’ writing achieves a sublime balance of voices that makes every pairing seem perfectly natural, and indeed inevitable.
The album closes with Dissonance, a forty-minute, one-act opera for synthesizer, baritone (Brandon Gibson) and mezzo-soprano (Brooke Clark Gibson), which consists of a dialogue in a funeral home between the daughter of the deceased, a piano teacher, and her former student, now an employee of the funeral home.
One of the more positive things that happened in 2020 was the relaunch of Neuma Records. In 1988 Shirish Korde and Jerry Tabor launched the label. They built a catalog that included recordings of well known twentieth century composers such as Xenakis, Cage, Boulez, Messiaen, Nono, Scelsi and Varese. But the catalog caught my attention in the early 90’s because it was releasing recordings of works by contemporary electroacoustic composers and recordings by performers who focused on the work of lesser known contemporary composers . The catalog includes works by Dashow, DeLio, Dodge, Gaburo, Johnston, Karpen, Lansky, Laske, Lippe, Martirano, Oliveros, Reynolds, Risset, Saariaho, Subotnick, Yuasa and many many more.
By the end of the 90’s Neuma’s release schedule had really become sparse. In 2020 the label relaunched with Philip Blackburn taking over. Blackburn is a composer who spent almost 30 years working at Innova Recordings. Innova focuses on assisting composers and performers through the recording, publication, marketing and distribution process. As a result, Innova has curated a diverse body of contemporary music spanning more than 650 albums. Blackburn has brought this assistive and curatorial approach to Neuma.
In December of 2020 Neuma released three new recordings. The first was from composer Wesley Fuller (1930-2020). It is a nice collection of seven electroacoustic pieces for instruments and computer.
Fuller ‘s works skillfully blends acoustic instruments and computer generated sounds with a focus on gesture, shape and color.
The second release is from composer Robert Moran. It is a nice collection of eight diverse works for orchestra. On this album Moran’s work is primarily neoromantic with occasional minimalist tendencies.
The third release is a concert recording from 1967 of composer Kenneth Gaburo conducting the New Music Choral Ensemble in a diverse program of twentieth century choral music. This is a really interesting release. If you don’t have any contemporary choral music in your collection then this would be the disc to have. It is not hard to imagine that in 1967 very few people in the US had heard live performances of choral music by Luigi Nono, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen. But practically no one had heard any music, never the less choral music from Pauline Oliveros, Ben Johnston, Leslie Bassett, Charles Hamm and Robert Shallenberg. Under the direction of Kenneth Gaburo the New Music Choral Ensemble took on the extreme technical challenges of performing such a diverse and difficult program. The program’s compositions included everything from 12 tone serial music to 31 tone just intonation to graphic and descriptive notation to works with live and or prerecorded electronics! The spirited performances on this disc are extremely well done. Also included are two interesting electronic pieces by Gaburo that were used to allow the singers a short break in between some of the pieces on the program. I highly recommend that you give this album a listen!
As I was getting ready to post this, Neuma released several additional titles – Robert Moran’s opera “Buddha goes to Bayreuth”, Gina Biver’s “Nimbus” which is seven miniatures for electroacoustic chamber ensemble, spoken word and soprano voice, James Caldwell’s “Pocket music” a set of concreté miniatures made with “small” sounds usually of things found in his pockets, and Spanish composer Juan J.G. Escuerdo’s “Shapes of Inner Timespaces” a collection of eight acousmatic compositions. Perusing their online catalog today it looks like several more titles are being released in February including a recording of Harry Partch’s “The Bewitched” ! I am glad to see that Neuma is back and that Blackburn has established an aggressive release schedule of diverse contemporary music. You can hear more samples of current and upcoming releases as well as selected back catalog on the Nuema Soundcloud Page. So check it out!
Stefan Schmidt, guitarist, composer and sound artist from Baden Baden, Germany, is a musician of many different sides. Although his primary instrument is classical guitar, which he studied in music schools in both Germany and Argentina, he also played electric guitar in punk bands and more recently has broadened out to play other string instruments and to work with electronics, which he often uses to create gradually developing, industrial- and noise-informed soundscapes. The latter is on display in můra, a set of nine pieces for cello and electronics. Throughout the album, Schmidt applies different types of electronic processing to his cello work. The title track and opening piece, for example, uses granular synthesis to transform bowed strings into skittering waves of abstract sound while still retaining something of the cello’s native sound. As on můra so on other tracks the acoustic instrument is recognizable even as its sound undergoes metamorphoses. On zoufalství a single bowed tone surfaces and descends relative to a deep bass foundation; on hřbitor the instrument’s sound is stretched and slowed to the point where one can imagine each individual hair of the bow pulling on the string. On rubáš the cello takes on a motoric sound, revving on a slow trill.
Several months before he released můra, Schmidt released arc/hive b [classical guitar], a collection of previously unissued performances for classical guitar spanning fifteen years. The fourteen tracks ably demonstrate the broad extent of Schmidt’s engagement with the instrument and its sonic potential. The playing ranges from conventional, as in juuichigatsu, to largely conventional with a judicious application of extended technique (gesrah), to almost entirely unconventional (eraly dren and maqtred, the latter a delicately beautiful piece constructed almost completely from harmonics). Prominent are pieces featuring electronic processing of the guitar, whether with granular synthesizer, loops or other forms of sonic augmentation. The final track, the nearly fifteen-minute-long muara, is a heavily treated performance that points forward to Schmidt’s recent work with sounds drawn from a dark ambient palette.
One of the pleasures of the long-form improvisation is that it allows the improvisers to invent freely and to explore as many ramifications of those inventions as their sensibilities demand, and their skills allow. In a sense, the long-form improvisation is, at least potentially, a fully articulated picture, in sound, of the interaction of a unique musical personality with time. The albums Helsinki and sentieri paralleli, both of which contain long, unbroken improvisations, provide just such portraits of the four musicians who created them.
The thirty-four-minute-long Helsinki Part 1, recorded in what now seems like the antediluvian pre-covid month of February, 2020, documents the first time guitarist Guillaume Gargaud of Le Havre, France, and Finnish trumpeter Eero Savala played together. That this was their initial meeting isn’t at all apparent in the music, which develops with a smooth, unbroken progression of ideas that are realized with an unhesitating assurance—not only for the entirety of the lengthy first piece but on the shorter follow-up as well. What both improvisations reveal is a strong lyricism carried along on Savela’s warm, mid-range voice, the unhurried phrasing of which contrasts with the bright, staccato tones of Gargaud’s acoustic guitar. Gargaud supports Savela’s melodies with sympathetic chords and countermelodies that evidence a sophisticated harmonic sense working in real time.
In contrast to Gargaud and Savela, who hadn’t met before recording Helsinki, it’s safe to say that Mauro Sambo and Matilde Sambo, a father-daughter duo, knew each other before recording sentieri paralleli and in fact they’ve previously collaborated on a recording. Also in contrast to the spartan instrumentation of the Helsinki set, Mauro and Matilde both bring a broad range of instrumental voices to their music. Mauro is represented by electronics, contra-alto clarinet, gong, Tibetan bells and other percussion, cello, zither and kumbus; Matilde is here on electric guitar, electronics and field recordings. Both musicians use these resources with discernment; there’s no overcrowding of textures or overshadowing of individual contributions. Their nearly thirty-eight-minute-long, single-track album begins with an electronic flourish in an echoing space and unfolds as a deliberately paced, ever-changing soundworld that pulls the listener into its nuanced, mist-enshrouded topography. All the more striking then when the mist evaporates and the lone voice of the contra-alto clarinet emerges, or an electric guitar arpeggio, or a clutch of pre-recorded speech.
The San Francisco Tape Music Collective is dedicated to presenting performances of audio art. For over 20 years they have presented The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, diffusing works from composers throughout the world in addition to their own works through a pristine immersive 24-speaker surround-sound environment, in complete darkness. SFTMC and SFTMF are projects of sfSound.
Donations are welcome. All proceeds go to the San Francisco Tape Music Festival. (post COVID-19). If you donate this Friday, Juneteenth, bandcamp will donate 100% of their shares to NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In the late 70s, an interdisciplinary team led by the composer Iannis Xenakis developed the compositional tool UPIC out of an effort to transform drawings into synthesized sound.
Together with the Centre Iannis Xenakis, the ZKM is now addressing for the first time the genesis of this unique computational instrument and traces its technical, social, institutional, and educational significance up to the current practice of contemporary composers who work with the idea of UPIC in current computer programs.
The volume with 27 richly illustrated contributions is published by Hatje Cantz. It is available both there and through the ZKM Bookshop as a print publication. In addition, it is published in its entirety as an open access version and available free of charge. On this page, the digital version is available for download as PDF, as well as audio samples and additional archive material not included in the print publication are accessible.