AMN Reviews: James Caldwell – Pocket Music (2021; Neuma 135)

“Pocket Music” is collection of suites of electroacoustic miniatures from composer James Caldwell.  Caldwell is Professor Emeritus at Western Illinois University (WIU). In addition to his teaching, Caldwell co-directed the annual New Music Festival at WIU where he programmed hundreds of new pieces by living composers. “Pocket Music” is his first portrait release and represents just one facet of his wide-ranging interests as a composer.

For this CD Caldwell’s compositions explore his sonic imagination with everyday items that are often found in his pockets. As he writes, “For more than twenty years I have pursued a sporadic project of making small musique concrète pieces. The original set used sounds I made with things I found in my pockets while working in the studio—coins, keys, plastic pill bottle, comb, paperback book, rubber band, and a screwdriver struck against a wrench. … As I returned to the project, I continued working with small found sounds, but not necessarily things from my pockets: ping-pong balls, a stapler, M&M’s,  binder clips, finger cymbals, a pencil run over the rungs on the back of a chair, dresser handles, the bag from a bunch of apples from the grocery store, a wine glass, and then — moving outside into my yard — cicadas, lawn furniture, garden stones in a wheelbarrow, birds, the distant rumble of the Macomb Speedway, and some odds and ends sitting around on my hard drive. Even as the objects became larger or farther from me, the pieces remained pocket size.”

Armed with his imagination and his computer Caldwell explores the various relationships between representation and abstraction with the object(s) he has chosen; sometimes imposing his compositional ideas on the object and other times led by his discovery of hidden sonic properties in the object itself. There is a great deal of variety amongst each of these miniatures. Some are very rhythmic, a few are very harmonic, others are more acousmatic. There is always a sense of both an idea and of playfulness in each of these pieces and that is what makes “Pocket Music” a really interesting listen. Recommended.

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Didier Guigue – Enquanto ainda é tempo [Fictício f0002]

Provençal-born, Brazilian musicologist and composer Didier Guigue has been creating provocative works of electroacoustic and electronic music for several decades both as a composer and as a bassoonist / contrabassoonist; he’s also written open-form works in non-standard notation. In addition to being on the faculty of the Universidade Federal da Paraíba, where his research has focused on the computer analysis of orchestration, he founded the IRCAM-associated Mus3 Research Group and was a co-founder of the Log³ Laptop Orchestra. In recent years Guigue has been working almost exclusively with electronic media and has been turning increasingly toward improvisation. In fact, he’s described much of his more recent work as “improvisations assembled and fixed.” As this background would suggest, much of Guigue’s music falls within the tradition of electronic music and musique concrète, and of experiments in avant-garde compositional methods more generally.

Enquanto ainda é tempo—“while there is still time”–is a collection of nine recent electronic pieces and Guigue’s fifth album. The pieces were realized by Guigue as well as by the Log³ Laptop Orchestra, Coletivo de Performance Artesanato Furioso, and Paralelo Cia de Dança. The music largely consists of sound collages blending elements of musique concrète, field recordings and anecdotal sounds, and electronic processing and synthesis. The title track exemplifies Guigue’s collage work. It combines recordings of what sounds like a political rally with a recording of a relentlessly steady drumming, segueing into a sampled recording of Baroque music, a manipulated recording of a female voice speaking, all followed by a long quite, electronic coda. Other pieces, like the electronic Elemens Part II and the drifting Eri Asai Awakes, take Guigue’s timbral free associations into more abstract and atmospheric territory, while Lori dans la neige, with its heavily processed recordings of the spoken word, is closer to pure musique concrète.

Guigue describes the album has having been meant to express “the last breath of optimism” in the Brazil of the late 2010’s. And while some of the sounds can be harsh and dark, there is in much of the music a contrasting lightness and openness to provide a sober balance.

Daniel Barbiero

From Xenakis’s UPIC to Graphic Notation Today

upic_cover_september2019In 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.

AMN Reviews: exclusiveOr / Architeuthis Walks on Land / International Contemporary Ensemble – “modules” [Carrier 044]

Jeff Snyder and Sam Pluta have been working together since 2006 as the duo exclusiveOR.  With Snyder performing on analog synthesizer and Pluta on live electronics. Their work explores the intersection of composition and improvisation with live electronics. For “modules” the duo is joined by some of today’s leading creative musicians: Architeuthis Walks on Land (AWOL) which is Amy Cimini – viola and Katherine Young – bassoon, and members of ICEPeter Evans, Nate Wooley – trumpets, Ryan Muncy – saxophones, Weston Olencki – trombone and Ross Karre – percussion.

“modules” was commissioned in 2014 by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) as part of their ICELab Series. It is a concert length work that utilizes both improvisation and strictly notated material. The piece covers a lot of ground as it flows through its fifteen modules in which seemingly opposing materials (pitch, sound and noise) and methodologies (composition, improvisation and live electronics) seamlessly interact with one another to create a unified whole. 


The fifteen “modules” are comprised of five composed by Pluta, five by Snyder and five improvisations from various small groupings of the ensemble. Each of these tracks or modules has its own distinct character, color and instrumentation. Pluta’s modules tend to be more aggressive and noisier, while Snyder’s are often more harmonically focused. The improvised sections are all sonically oriented and very original. Despite the contrasts within each module they really seem connected and many segments flow into one another in a conversational like manner.

Here is an earlier performance with brass quartet, analog synthesizer, live electronics, and percussion.  It’s interesting to hear both of these versions because it makes clear the significant contributions that improvisers can bring to pieces like “modules”.

For those that need some kind of categorization I would put “modules” under the banner of “creative music”; in that the sound worlds that the composers and improvisers create, freely explore many different contemporary and historical musical ideas without any allegiance or deference to any of the “school’s” associated with these ideas. This is a trend that has been growing for quite some time and I think the composers and improvisers on “modules” are among the best of a new generation of musicians continuing this exploration.

Highly recommended!

Chris De Chiara



AMN Reviews: Niklas Adam – Undulate [SOFA 572]

Undulate, the solo release from Niklas Adam, a sound artist originally from Denmark but now living in Oslo, is a paradoxical album. The two longish tracks are austere and episodic in structure, but the individual sounds that they comprise are strangely sensual. Both pieces consist of more or less discrete events of sounds whose sources are hard to place—acoustic percussion? Purely electronic sounds? Some combination of the two or something else altogether?—but which call attention to themselves in a quiet but compelling way.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michel Redolfi – Desert Tracks [Sub Rosa SR 418CD & 418LP]

sr418-siteWith Desert Tracks, Michel Redolfi (1951) set out to create an image in sound of the desert—its vast spaces, both topographical and audio—of the American Southwest.

Involved in electronic experimental music since his late teens in his native Marseilles, Redolfi went on to work with Pierre Henry, Luc Ferrari and others in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to that, in 1973-1984, he was pursuing electronic composition in California at UC San Diego and the California Institute of the Arts. In 1987, he returned to the US where he went into the Mojave Desert, Death Valley and Palm Canyon to make a series of recordings. These form the basis of the Desert Tracks, originally released in 1988. This re-release on LP and CD contains the 1988 album, as well as an additional ten minute track on the CD version.

As can be imagined, the sounds are stark and austere, creating a portrait in sound that reflects something essential about the harsh desert environment. But the portrait is an abstract one, consisting in looming, often unstable chords with a bright, bell-like sheen to them; the punctuating sounds of scrapes, rattling and crackling; and always a reversion to silence. Occasionally a recognizable sound emerges—a human voice, however modified, or what sounds like a train approaching a crossing—but for the most part the sounds are suggestive rather than depictive. Redolfi plays with foreground and background sounds, and the occasional Doppler effect, to create a sense of spatial depth analogous to the physical distances encountered in the desert.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Persen – Electronic Works [Aurora ACD5090]

MI0003981837This set of two electronic works by Norwegian composer John Persen (1941-2014) focuses attention on a relatively little-known side of his work. His music for orchestra and chamber ensembles is well-represented on CD, while his opera Under Cross and Crown earned him a measure of renown.

Persen’s biography is somewhat unusual, and in its own way its trajectory from an upbringing in a religious minority community to a career as a modern composer, is oddly reminiscent of La Monte Young’s own passage from Mormonism to musical innovation. Persen, of Sami background, was raised in an environment shaped by Laestadianism, a conservative Lutheran revival movement. He studied at the Oslo conservatory and pursued further studies in composition in Germany with Ligeti. In addition to his compositional work, he took an active role in establishing or working with various cultural institutions in Norway.

One of the two pieces presented here has been issued previously, while the other appears for the first time. The first track is Things Take Time, a work originally conceived of as a six-hour, staggered-loop piece called Against Cold Winds. The track, structured as a long-period cycle, features an array of sounds—chiming metallic chirps and synthetic tintinnabulations—that stays more or less constant across various changes of texture. Almost halfway in a dully roaring, wind-like sound washes out the chiming sounds and the piece evolves into long, layered tones, eventually coming back around to the sounds at its beginning. The second track, Nota Bene—The Title Is a Lie, relies on sounds that, while mostly percussive, are interspersed with sounds broadly suggestive of environmental elements: Bubbling and dripping water, rustling wind and rattling leaves.

A minor complaint: The CD jacket lists the tracks in the wrong order and attributes a date of composition for Note Bene at variance with the date given in the liner notes. None of this takes away from the sound of the music, which is absorbing.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Pulsinger/Fennesz – In Four Parts [col legno WWE 1CD 20410]

2_20410_pulsinger_coverRecorded live at the WIEN MODERN festival in Vienna in 2012—the centennial year of John Cage’s birth, as it happens—In Four Parts is Patrick Pulsinger and Christian Fennesz’s reimagining of Cage’s 1950 String Quartet in Four Parts.

Cage’s quartet is a generally understated work notable for its restrained dynamics, detached islands of coloristic, non-functional harmonies, and brief, fragmentary melodic motifs. The recurrence of its sets of fixed harmonies gives it a cyclical rather than a static feeling, which reflects Cage’s aesthetic interests at the time he wrote it.

The quartet was the product of a period in the late 1940s when Cage, influenced by the writings and lectures of philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy and his friendship with Gita Sarabhai, created works inspired by the codification and expression of emotion in Indian classical music. He was particularly influenced by the notion that art should reflect nature and its cyclical manner of operation—his first orchestral work was The Seasons of 1947, a ballet score for Lincoln Kirstein—and this notion is not only embodied in the quartet’s four-part structure, but forms its emotional core as well.

Given this background, it was Pulsinger and Fennesz’s inspiration to re-envision rather than recreate Cage’s work. They first reduced the quartet to a duo, with Pulsinger’s analogue modular synthesizer standing in for the viola and cello, and Fennesz’s electronically treated electric guitar replacing the two violins. Their In Four Parts retains the overall structure and trajectory of Cage’s quartet, which lays out a cycle of movement that runs from more to less activity and ends with a burst of unexpectedly energetic themes.

Fennesz’s guitar provides most of the harmonic/melodic material, while Pulsinger’s synthesizer frames it within a context of colors running from unpitched chirps to resonant, bell-like tones, to—in an oblique acknowledgement of the cello’s role as the quartet’s lowest voice—an occasional sub bass more felt than heard. Echoes of Cage’s harmonies occasionally arise, and like Cage’s harmonies these are configured as free standing events populating a texture of progressively thinner density. Until the fourth and final section, which like Cage’s features thicker, more quickly moving sound.

Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts is a beautiful, sublime work. Pulsinger and Fennesz’s In Four Parts is certainly worthy of it.

AMN Reviews: Salvatore Martirano – The SalMar Construction [SubRosa SRV374]

sr374lp_CUThe Sal-Mar Construction, the synthesizer featured on this LP from SubRosa, was an early, real-time electronic composition system conceived by American composer Salvatore Martirano (1927-1995) in the late 1960s.

Martirano’s musical background was varied, having begun with piano and clarinet and a period just after WWII playing jazz. His formal studies included instruction by Luigi Dallapiccola at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence in the early 1950s, followed by time spent in Rome. He developed an eclectic style of composition and performance informed by twelve-tone method, improvisation, popular music and theater.

Martirano began working with computer music shortly after his move to the music department of the University of Illinois in 1963. The Sal-Mar Construction, heard here in a previously unreleased performance recorded at IRCAM in Paris in 1983, was developed at U of IL between 1969 and 1972 by Martirano and some of the school’s engineers. The synthesizer was designed to control the spectra of digital waveforms and worked through a system of switches controlling analogue synthesis modules. Because Martirano conceived the system as scalable, its controls worked at all levels, from the grains of individual timbres up to the overall structure of a composition.

The IRCAM recording captures a performance by Martirano and consists of a composition of approximately 42 minutes presented in two parts. As might be expected given the Sal-Mar’s architecture, the composition is primarily made up of timbral sculpting, layering and spacing. Structurally, the work consists of sequences of events grouped together by intervening silences that serve as boundaries between them. The events themselves are polyphonic—overlapping individual lines of distinctive sound colors that are grouped and set out at rates of change that emphasize their contrasting qualities. When pitch comes into play it’s often as a glissando or continuum of microtones rather than as lines of discrete tones assembled into a conventional melody. The sound Martirano constructs is engrossing and full of depth—the aural equivalent of one of Frank Stella’s colorful, projective paintings of the 1980s.


AMN Reviews: Jerry Hunt – Haramand Plane

Jerry Hunt: Haramand Plane [Pogus 21069-2]

Haramand Plane is a reissue of the last works of the Texas-based electronic composer Jerry Hunt (1943-1993). A one-time Rosicrucian adept who founded his own correspondence course church at the age of 13, Hunt created music with occult overtones. As he explains in the highly idiosyncratic liner notes accompanying the CD, these final pieces, all dating from 1993, were composed using a “translation” system drawing on tables supposedly encoding angelic name and numbers obtained in seances by the 16th century English occultist John Dee.

Its allegedly supernatural provenance aside, the music sounds like the soundtrack to a film the narrative logic of which hovers just on the other side of comprehension. It’s highly atmospheric, and seems to allude to interior states that like beneath and beyond the capacity to describe them. The pieces move through multiple waves of moods and colors, as for example in the nearly half hour-long Chimanzzi Link (2), where samples of low-pitched strings lend a certain gravitas that is then offset by the exaggerated vibrato of upper register samples.