Sound artist Ken Moore’s Vital Xanthic Panoply is an unapologetic head trip—a 29 minute-long single track EP offering a phantasmagoria of sounds from a variety of sources, some identifiable and some not. There are, at minimum, vintage synthesizer sweeps and rumbles; gongs, chimes, and tuned percussion; randomized piano and organ lines—a polyphony of distantly related timbres and tones whether synthetic or real, or real and processed, that somehow catalyze each other in an alchemy of pure sonic shapeshifting. But what matters isn’t so much where the sounds come from or what is done to them as where they go. Which is forward, along a meandering path. The entire piece is integrated with a freely pulsed perpetual motion that carries it along on undulating waves of sound, some running forward, some running backward, but all constantly changing through a combinatory logic all their own. This is music that carries no message beyond the sensual pleasure it provides. But sometimes, that’s enough.
(Full disclosure: Moore is a friend and occasional collaborator.)
Founded in 1971 and still in operation, the Canadian Electronic Ensemble claims to be the “oldest continuous live-electronic group in the world.” The group was originally a quartet made up of University of Toronto graduate students David Jaeger, Jim Montgomery, Larry Lake, and David Grimes; over the next fifty years the ensemble underwent changes in size and makeup, reducing to a trio and then growing to a sextet between 1978 and 2002 and then undergoing frequent shifts in personnel after that. Even so, on this collection of recordings spanning 1976-2018, there is a surprising stability at the core, with Montgomery and Jaeger present on all six selections.
In addition to changes in personnel, there have been changes in the group’s instrumentation, an inevitability given developments in electronic technologies for sound production and reproduction. Early analogue synthesizers have largely although apparently not completely been replaced by laptops, as the group still employs modular synths as well as acoustic instruments. The bulk of the recordings on the Modulisme session postdate 2000, putting them firmly in the laptop years.
The earliest piece in the collection is Surge, a live performance recorded 19 August 1976 in St. Lawrence Hall, Toronto, with the original quartet. Like much early electronic music, Surge is about exploring the possibilities of synthesized sound—its timbral range and pitch compass. Low-frequency drones and high-frequency pings alternate and mutate into closely and then distantly related sounds; the compositional factor enters into the group’s deft use of negative spaces and dynamics to create a balanced overall sound. In essence, Surge provides the template for much of what follows. Ambient Pinging, a 2002 recording featuring Jaeger, Lake, Montgomery, Mike Dobinson, and longtime members Rose Bolton and Paul Stillwell, both of whom joined the group in the late 1990s, is more thickly textured than Surge, but continues and extends the older piece’s use of timbral counterpoint. The most recent recordings date from a live studio session of September 2018 with Jaeger, Montgomery, Stillwell, Bolton, and David Sutherland. The electronic voices represented are a combination of the classic and contemporary, and here too the ensemble’s signature approach, which Sutherland describes as “more about sound than melody or harmony,” is on full display.
Before the Internet, before the widespread use of digital music production and recording technologies, there was a thriving underground of electronic and experimental musicians working with analogue tools and connected largely by a network of tape trading and DIY publications. Two new releases of music from this period—a compilation of various forms of electronic and experimental music from the mid-1980s, and a recording of a 1988 electronic music concert—give a sense of the work being done by these largely homegrown artists.
A Cage Went in Search of a Bird is a generous collection of twenty-three tracks of various types of electronic music originally assembled by Alan Freeman, publisher of Audion Magazine, in 1984 and 1985 and issued on two cassettes. The music was divided into four loose categories that covered a wide range of the work being done then: melodic/cosmic synthesizer music; experimental electronics; underground and new wave rock; and avant-garde and industrial sounds. The artists included were from various countries and working at different levels within the music world; some, such as Conrad Schnitzler and Günter Schickert, had had recordings released on prestigious labels, while others operated within a more DIY milieu. What’s striking is how high the quality of experimentation generally is, no matter where in the then-label-dominated hierarchy the artists happened to be. To be sure, nearly forty years on some of the pieces may feel more directly relevant to current sounds than others, but it’s interesting nevertheless to reach back to hear what the state of the art was when the art was still new. For that, A Cage Went in Search of a Bird provides a fascinating, panoramic snapshot of a unique historical moment.
The 1988 WOMR concert presented performances by three members of the International Electronic Music Association (IEMA), a network of electronic musicians active in the 1980s. The concert, held in the Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was for the benefit of local radio station WOMR and featured a duo set with Ben Kettlewell and Dave Prescott, preceded by an opening solo set from Lauri Paisley. Paisley, who abandoned music in the early 1990s, has since her 2012 death from cancer become something of a cult figure; her set here consists of three structured, relatively brief pieces centered on arpeggiated chord progressions akin to symphonic prog rock. The set by Kettlewell and Prescott, both of whom were based in Massachusetts and hosts of electronic music shows on local radio stations—WOMR among them–displays the strong influence of classic Berlin-school synth music. Kettlewell and Prescott assimilated the style and made it their own; their playing is confident and the music properly propulsive and atmospheric. All things considered the concert’s sound quality is good for the time, and the music still enjoyable to listen to; like A Cage Went in Search of a Bird, the recording is also valuable as an historical document.
The WOMR concert recording was released by Anvil Creations, the label curated by Ken Moore; it features not only historic work by IEMA artists but includes a range of Moore’s work over the years, and is definitely worth checking out. (Full disclosure: I’ve appeared on a handful of collaborations with Ken, some of which are available through Anvil Creations.)
David Dunn’s works reflect his interests and research in acoustic ecology, bioacoustics, interspecies communication and scientific sonification. These interests has enabled him to truly be an interdisciplinary artist. Dunn has produced a very unique body of work that blurs the line between art and science.
David Dunn’s latest piece is “Verdant” which he describes as a kind of pastoral motivated by his desire to speak to a more optimistic future. The material of “Verdant” is an intersection of ambient music, new tonality, minimalism, algorithmic composition, software synthesis, field recording, sound art, and drone music. It is a binaural piece in a single movement of about eighty minutes in length. “Verdant” was composed and recorded during the pandemic. The quietness caused by the pandemic allowed Dunn who is an expert wildlife recordist to capture some of the extremely low volume sounds of the desert. This microscopic desert audio soundscape is intertwined with slowly changing drones of sinewaves that float along with the ambient sounds of windchimes, sustained violin sounds, backyard birds and distant traffic to create a deep and wide imaginary soundscape.
“Verdant” is a wonderful active ambient pastoral. Since it is a binaural recording, it is best experienced with headphones or ear buds. My first listen was at a very moderate volume level and while I found the piece really interesting on the next several passes, I listened to it at a soft to very soft volume and then found it to be really captivating. So, I would highly recommend listening to this at a softer volume and really give it a deep listen. I think most if not all regular AMN readers will find this a very engaging and relaxing listen.
For those who want to explore more of Dunn’s work I would recommend starting with an excellent article by Madison Heying and David Kant from the Sound American issue dedicated to Dunn’s work. Dunn’s website also provides a detailed retrospective of the last thirty years of his work with a collection of his scores, writings, sounds and images.
“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.
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!
Fred Frith is a pioneer of the extended electric guitar. Take a glance at his discography of over four hundred titles and it becomes clear that Frith has successfully inserted himself into an incredibly diverse number of contemporary sound worlds. From bands like Henry Cow, Skeleton Crew and Massacre to improvising with the likes of John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, and Evan Parker to his compositions for electric guitar quartet, the Ensemble Modern, the Arditti Quartet and so much more!
One of Frith’s many collaborations has been with Sudhu Tewari in the duo Normal. Tewari is a sound artist focused on audio electronics, interactive installations, invented musical instruments and sound sculptures that utilize whatever materials are on hand. They recently presented and discussed a number of their invented instruments at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.
“Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” is a new release from Fred Frith, Sudhu Tewari and Cenk Ergün. The material for this album was recorded about ten years ago as an improvisation with Frith on guitar, Tewari playing recuperated junk and electronics and Ergün on electronics. However, this is not an album of a group improvisation. “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” is a long form work that uses the original improvised studio material as building blocks for an entirely new piece.
Cenk Ergün is a Turkish American composer/improviser currently based in Berlin. Ergün has written a wide range of acoustic and electronic works. A wonderful album of two of Ergün’s compositions for string quartet performed by the JACK Quartet was released earlier this year. During the lock down Ergün revisited the ten year old session and then went to work. He created a sound library of various samples from the original trio session. The samples range from a second to several minutes. Samples from the library may be heard in their raw form or heavily processed. Ergün used this library to very carefully assemble “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down”, which combines elements of rock, noise, improvisation, electronic processing and digital studio composition.
While “Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” has been divided into seven tracks it really is a continuous forty-four-minute piece. I think it is best to listen to it as a single listening experience. The piece has a mesmerizing almost dream like quality to it. It’s sounds move from the chaotic and noisy to the lyrical and harmonic, often drifting between multiple textures. There are sections that focus on developing very specific elements from the original session. For example, the title track is all Frith reassembled by Ergün layering different moments from the original studio session. “Stay Tuned“ features Tewari’s mallet work on his “street piano” accompanied by birds and the occasional passing car interrupted by bursts from the studio session. The piece ends with “Dem” which focus’s on the final sounds Frith made in the original session. The gentle de-tuned arpeggios from Frith’s guitar unfold at a glacial pace into long sustained chords that slowly transform back into their original form.
“Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down” is a wonderful listen! It successfully combines so many different sonic elements that it is likely to appeal to a very broad range of creative music listeners. Treat your ears and give it a listen.
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.
“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.