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: The Return of Neuma Records

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!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Fred Frith, Sudhu Tewari, Cenk Ergün – Lock Me Up, Lock Me Down (CARRIER054)

LMULMD_digital_cover

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.

Street Piano_photo by Carly McLane

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.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

San Francisco Tape Music Collective

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A selection of fixed media works presented by the collective in recent San Francisco Tape Music Festivals.

Works by Maggi Payne, Kent Jolly, Cliff Caruthers, Matt Ingalls, Thom Blum, Kristin Miltner, and Joseph Anderson.

 

Freely available for streaming and download from http://sound.bandcamp.com.

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.

http://sfSound.org/tape

http://sfsound.bandcamp.com/album/san-francisco-tape-music-collective

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: Renaud Bajeux – Magnetic Voices From The Unseen [NAHAL007]

NAHAL_07_12inch_V3.indd“Magnetic Voices From The Unseen” is the first album from Renaud Bajeux. It is available as an LP or as a digital download. The digital edition contains an additional live track. Renaud Bajeux is a sound engineer and cinema sound designer based in Paris. Bajeux has been regularly collaborating with the INA-GRM for the last ten years and has a GRM commission receiving its world premiere at the GRM’s Akousma Festival in Paris this week.

For “Magnetic Voices From The Unseen” Bajeux primarily works with sound material he discovered in the magnetic fields of various electronic devices. Armed with magnetic coils he explores the sounds of things found on most people’s desks like hard drives, computers, cell phones and monitor screens. While the sound sources may be novel, it is Bajeux’s imaginative way of transforming these sounds into a series of noise-laden soundscapes that makes this debut album so interesting.

 

The four pieces on this album have a cinematic feel, filled with subtle to surprising developments as they progress. Bajeux’s compositions straddle elements like noise, harmonicity, glitch, experimental, electronics, minimalism, and ambient sound without ever really succumbing to any of those elements in terms of overall style.  “Magnetic Voices From The Unseen” is a wonderful debut album!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: “aus Licht”- K. Stockhausen [2019 Holland Festival, Amsterdam]

This year’s Holland Festival   presented what may have been its most ambitious undertaking ever – a marathon performance of selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s   magnum opus “Licht”.  “Licht” is a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week, that Stockhausen wrote over a twenty-five-year period. While individual operas and scenes from this cycle have been and continue to be performed, a staging of the entire cycle which runs over twenty-nine hours in a single place is generally considered to be impossible. The Holland Festival presented the first ever staging of more than half of “Licht” in a single place. Fifteen hours of music was selected from the cycle and performed over three days at the Gashouder in Amsterdam. Several additional hours of electronic music from “Licht” was also presented for “dedicated” listeners before and after each day’s performances. This three-day cycle was presented three times from May 31 to June 10. I never thought I would ever be able to hear so much of Stockhausen’s work performed in one single event and I was lucky enough to attend the June 4-6 performances. It was an absolutely spectacular concert event.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the major innovators of the twentieth century. In many ways his vision of a dramatic musical work greatly differs from opera. “Licht” does not adhere to a linear plot, it is modular, with no definite beginning or end. Each piece of music, in each of the individual operas within the cycle is autonomous and therefore can be performed by itself.  Stockhausen wrote his own libretto and while it is based on familiar mythology the main characters are archetypes that represent universal forces – Michael as love, Lucifer as light and Eve as life itself.  Stockhausen portrays these universal forces with both singers and instrumentalists. The work asks the instrumentalists to not only play what is often very difficult music, but to be in costume, move, sing and perform various gestures as they play his virtuosic score.

The entire work is based on a structure of three musical layers with each layer representing one of the major characters. This structure or “super formula” as Stockhausen calls it, serves as the sonic foundation for all of the pieces in the entire cycle. The scores also specify a great deal of detail for each dimension of the performance and specifically defines many of the production parameters – costumes, scenery, lighting, imagery, colors, symbols, sound projection, gestures, movement, dances, and so much more.

The experience Stockhausen creates is a kind of ritual theater that has been influenced by much of our planetary culture. But this work is not a completely somber affair. It explores all of the facets of life from love to war to humor. Among the humorous characters in this work is “Synthi-Fou”, an Elton John like figure whose synthesizer solo feature is a bit like Sun Ra channeling the phantom of the opera and then there is the “swallow pair”, a clarinet duo that are decked out in tails with antics not unlike the classic Marx brothers.

While the “Licht” cycle frames eternal questions, Stockhausen does not attempt to answer these questions for us, instead he illustrates them in his own unique way and invites us to experience his reflections on the eternal. All of this is to create his personal vision of a musical theater filled with magic and ritual that can appeal and be understood by everyone on this planet. The result is a timeless masterpiece.

In my opinion the Holland Festival’s production of “aus Licht” succeeded in bringing to life much of Stockhausen’s vision.  It was an incredible music theater experience. I found the elegance and subtlety of the staging, video, lighting and costumes highlighted the ritual aspects of the performance while creating a beautiful open atmosphere. While live performance always reveals aspects of a work that are just not captured by recordings, hearing many of these pieces live was a revelation.

Each day began with optional electronic music for dedicated listeners. The electronic music was beautifully diffused around the circular room in the Gashouder  through a twenty-four channel system with one hundred loudspeakers carefully surrounding the room. Hearing Stockhausen’s electronic music in this space diffused by a specially trained team revealed dimensions that just aren’t audible on the recordings. It was a wonderful way to begin the day. This was followed by films of grade school children explaining the story and drawing pictures of the characters. Despite my not speaking Dutch it was clear that the children understood the story and it was a nice light hearted way to set the stage for each performance.

Most of the performers were conservatory students and many were children. Each of the main characters, Michael, Eve and Lucifer were portrayed by several different performers and there were so many musicians (about 300) that were part of these performances rather than singling out any of them I would rather just say that all of the musicians played and or sang beautifully and performed with real passion, power, presence and conviction. They were all incredible. There was nothing about this production that was “student” or “amateur”. From end to end “aus Licht” was a world class professional performance and production.

While “aus Licht” was promoted as a marathon it never felt long to me. When each day ended I was excited and eager to hear more. When it was all over I found myself wishing that I had gotten tickets for all nine nights and experienced the three-day cycle three times.

This week Arte posted several clips from the Holland Festival production of “aus Licht”.  The five clips are short but are very well filmed and have high quality stereo sound. The first clip is of the “Girl’s Procession”. While this clip is just a few minutes from a thirty minute piece it should be enough to demonstrate the tremendous talents of the girls choir and the beauty of the overall production.

Clip two is a short excerpt from “Lucifer’s Dance”.  It features one of the larger ensembles on the second stage with the brilliant soloists engaged in a powerful dramatic performance. The staging made use of multiple stages plus various configurations of the room.

Clip three is a short excerpt from the very last piece “Angel Procession”. Notice that the configuration of the room in each clip is different and was often changed for each scene. This clip demonstrates the effectiveness of the lighting, staging and costume design when combined with the spectacular adult choirs. It was a somewhat solemn but powerful way to end the three days.

Clip four is a short excerpt from the infamous helicopter string quartet. Yes, it’s a string quartet where each of the strings are in their own helicopter and the performance is beamed back to earth. The sounds of the strings are mixed with the sounds of the helicopters and diffused around the room. Many reviewers portray this piece as nothing more than unnecessary excess but in doing so I think it misrepresents the piece. It is a serious work that is also a fun spectacle. You can hear Stockhausen’s own words on the piece in this video from the Holland Festival’s archives from when they first presented it in 1995.

The final clip is a short excerpt from “Michael’s Journey Around the World”. It features a very large ensemble with the trumpet soloist Michael and the clarinet duo “swallow pair”. That fades and then we hear a very short excerpt from “Thursday’s Greeting (Michael’s Greeting)”.

If you viewed all of the clips you get a sense of the variety and magnitude of both the musical and production forces required to perform “aus Licht”. You should also notice that the soloists and the choirs are not reading any music. Everything has been memorized and internalized. This kind of performance requires an enormous commitment from the musicians. As you can imagine presenting a work of this size and scope would have many challenges. So how did the Holland Festival pull this off? Well according to the program notes it started in the spring of 2015 when the head of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Henk van der Meulen and colleague Renee Jonker pitched the idea to the Holland Festival as a way of having students from the conservatory perform selected pieces from the cycle. Holland Festival Artistic Director Ruth Mackenzie and music programmer Jochem Valkenburg were interested and they proposed that the students perform all twenty-nine hours of the entire cycle! This was then handed off to the festival head of production Sigi Giesler.

As they explored what it would take to produce the entire cycle they realized they would need help and they enlisted Pierre Audi of the Dutch National Opera to be the projects director. This delegation then met with Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens of the Stockhausen Foundation for Music to discuss the project. After many meetings, by September of 2016 they realized that their best shot was to produce selected pieces from the cycle. So, they worked to select pieces from the cycle from which they could construct a dramaturgically coherent collection of scenes. As that was happening the Royal Conservatory established an “aus Licht” Master’s program to train students with a solid Stockhausen foundation. Then Pierre Audi and the Dutch National Opera took responsibility for this massive project with the Holland Festival co-producing. Kathinka Pasveer then signed on as the music director.

With less than three years to go they kicked off fundraising and the project moved forward.  The project plan had more than four hundred and fifty rehearsals, with more than two hundred and fifty students and thirty-seven soloists, plus all of the various creative and production teams.  Nearly four years later in May 2019 the work of more than six hundred people had come to maturation and rehearsals for the final production began at the Gashouder and a slice of the impossible became very real!

“aus Licht” was an incredibly memorable experience. I am very grateful to all that contributed to bringing it to life. The Holland Festival showed its courage and commitment to contemporary music by investing the time and resources necessary in presenting this great work and by building partnerships with The Dutch National Opera, The Royal Conservatory, the Stockhausen Foundation for Music, and many others to ensure that the production of “aus Licht” would be a major success. And it absolutely was! My hope is that “aus Licht” was not a one-off. I hope that this partnership will come together again soon and perform “aus Licht” again. Maybe even add another day or present another collection of different selections from “Licht”. Perhaps this production will inspire someone to try and present an even bigger slice of the impossible!

Chris De Chiara

 

 

AMN Reviews: The Cloudwatchers – S/T [Unexplained Sounds Group]; Ståle Storløkken – The Haze of Sleeplessness [Hubro HUBROCD2616]

Forms by themselves are inert things: accumulated conventions and materials that, for all their inertia, are nevertheless available to be appropriated and made newly meaningful through the projects and programs that somehow have need of them. The Cloudwatchers, a quartet of musicians working in Spain, and the Norwegian keyboardist/composer Ståle Storløkken each take an awareness of the conventions and materials of classic electronic avant-garde and cosmic music and creatively reimagine them as something authentically their own.

The Cloudwatchers’ membership comprises Andrés Alonso (electric guitar and bass, digital synthesizers and audio processors); Iván Cebrián (analogue synthesizers and audio processors); Coco Moya (voice, analogue synthesizers and audio processors); and Jaime Munáriz (analogue synthesizers, electric guitar and audio processors). The group’s overlapping instrumentation—three of the four play analogue synthesizers, and all four engage in audio processing—doesn’t prevent them from creating rich soundscapes of varying colors. The three long, untitled pieces are constructed around more or less fixed harmonies; as a foundation this may seem simple, but with this kind of music what matters isn’t complex harmonic change but instead changes in texture, timbre and voice. Sometimes, as in the first piece, the voice is human, oscillating in microtones around washes of synthesizer and echo-drenched guitar. The dominant voice on the second piece, by contrast, consists in a modal keyboard melody floating lightly over the gravitas of a slow beat and densely-layered background texture. The closing piece features luminous sounds and culminates in an ostinato for sequencer—a clever recontextualization of an old convention from space music.

Like the Cloudwatchers, Storløkken’s natural point of reference is the classic electronic music of the 1960s and 1970s, but also like the Cloudwatchers, he doesn’t try to recreate those sounds through direct imitation but rather by indirect hint and allusion. With The Haze of Sleeplessness he sets out to make a soundtrack for a non-existent film, the better to let the listener dream his or her own characters, plot and setting. Each of the seven pieces is a tone poem in itself, but taken together, all add up to a collectively coherent suite which—in a coincidental parallel to the Cloudwatchers’ final track–ends in a sequencer-driven flourish.

 

 

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