Composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp has been a major voice within the downtown New York music scene for decades. Timbre, dynamics, motion, shape and rhythm are always in play in Sharp’s compositional and improvisational practice. His music is a kind of avant-garde “groove” that combines algorithmic thinking with interpretive and improvisatory intuition. His latest album “PLASTOVY HRAD” presents three very different compositions that feature the bass clarinet.
“Plastovy Hrad” is for chamber orchestra with bass clarinet soloist. The composition was commissioned by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra as part of the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic. In this piece Sharp builds a kind of labyrinth that is somewhat dark and relentless. The bass clarinet soloist is a lone voice that wanders the labyrinth commenting and questioning as it moves through its ever changing surroundings. The cimbalom is prominently used to provide a counter voice to the bass clarinet. The use of the cimbalom also gives the piece bits of Czech folk sounds that pierce the dark textures often revealing bits of light. It’s a really interesting piece that is well recorded. Both the soloist Lukasz Danhel and the ensemble perform with a great deal of power, conviction and subtly.
“Turing Test” premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2012. It is performed by the voices of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the bass clarinet of Gareth Davis. It is a kind of mini-opera where disembodied voices try to understand who they are and where they are. While many of the techniques in Elliott Sharp’s musical language such as cells and looping appear to be at work here, they are used very differently than in other works by Sharp. In this piece Sharp uses these techniques not to construct actively evolving dense textures but clear melodic segments of counterpoint and chords for the voices. Gareth Davis’s wonderful bass clarinet is used to comment and question the voices as they continue their test. It’s a wonderful piece that is beautifully performed. I look forward to hearing more work in this vein from Elliott Sharp.
“Oumuamua” is a graphic score for bass clarinet and electronics. In this piece the bass clarinet is processed by the electronics in real time. In many ways this piece resembles Sharp’s solo electric guitar work, in that there are repeated fragments overlaid in a constant forward motion that occasionally collapses into a sustained sound mass. The use of electronics here is really interesting in that they are both transformative and interactive. The bass clarinet transforms into clusters of floating sounds that dissolve into duets between the bass clarinet with sounds that resemble berimbau, saxophone and organ. It’s an interesting and wild romp that features Elliott Sharp’s excellent bass clarinet playing.
All in all, “PLASTOVY HRAD” is a really interesting and diverse album that presents three different faces of Elliott Sharp, one of America’s most interesting contemporary composers.
Chris De Chiara
Some of the systems art of the late 1960s and early 1970s—for example, Sol LeWitt’s modular lattice sculptures or Mel Bochner’s number grids—embodied a certain regularity of form. A systematic regularity, one might say. A basic element might be repeated at constant intervals or an input sequence subjected to a defined operation. By contrast, some other systemic artworks—integral serialist compositions, for example–produced surfaces of unpredictable, irregularly occurring events from an underlying set of rules. In either case the systems generating the artworks featured a certain autonomy requiring little or no ongoing oversight from the artist. Chvad SB’s Phenomenalism Cartesian Doubt and Bomb #20, a long piece for modular synthesizer, leverages carefully crafted feedback loops into a soundwork that essentially plays itself.
With its collection of fragmentary musical gestures, Phenomenalism sounds something like the pointillist serial works of the mid-20th century—it’s possible to hear in it a refigured echo of Milton Babbitt’s compositions for the RCA Mark II synthesizer of the early 1960s, for example. Like those compositions, Phenomenalism aggregates individual pitch sequences and timbres into a kaleidoscopic sound of playful unpredictability. Also like those compositions, the pleasure of the surface sounds requires no knowledge of the systems underlying them.
Whether or not it’s the soul of wit, brevity does often compel an artist to pare down to essentials. Thus it is with these four new releases from Silber Records’ 5 in 5 series of EPs, each of which contains five tracks totaling five minutes. As it happens, the twenty tracks collectively represent twenty different ways to set one minute in sound.
The five pieces on The Body Electric by Kirchenkampf (electronic musician John Gore) manage to cover a rolling terrain in five short strides. From the foreboding electronic wash of the opening EEG through the closing Galvani, which brings to mind a shortwave receiver tuned between stations, Gore develops a musical rhetoric of metallic timbres rooted in pulse and periodicity that undulates at variable speeds. Llarks’ 5 x 5 is Chris Jeely’s treated guitar framed by abstract sounds. Each track is built around a kind of skeleton chord progression sketched out as an arpeggio, cadence or elliptical cycle. Parties—P D Wilder, Joe Morgan and Andrew Weathers—likewise create effects-laden, guitar-centered music layered over pedal points or percolating synths. The Japanese cinema-inspired Aokigahara by X-Bax (Phil Dole) is, despite the grim implications of its underlying concept, composed of mostly melodic miniatures for guitar with a dose of heavy rock and gritty drone on the final two cuts.
Two new offerings from the Pan y Rosas netlabel present different perspectives on making electronic music. One involves intuitive, moment-to-moment decision making, while the other draws inspiration from a systems-based aesthetic of autonomous processes.
Nununu is Marseille-based experimental guitarist Clara de Asís’s twenty-four minute, unedited single-take improvisation for prepared electric guitar. A continuously evolving soundscape, the piece begins with a low-key electronic hum or murmur that at times sounds like the rush of wind through telephone wires or the throbbing of airplane propellers high overhead. From there de Asís builds reverberant sound blocks into a thickness of layered echoes which eventually converge into a buzz and an unsettling, suspended chord punctuated by the metallic chiming of struck strings.
Caroline Park, whose 2013 release Rim explored the sonic products of generative compositional processes, here presents five pieces that begin with minimal musical materials which accumulate into larger structures through repetition, superimposition and variation. In Being States Park creates changing harmonic patterns by layering a handful of brief motifs of a few notes each; the larger melodic aggregates that result take on unpredictable shapes by virtue of the differing lengths and cycles of the constituent motifs. Plantlife and A Moth Is Born are made up of somewhat harsher sounds, the former sending its elongated tones riding out on a wave of static and the latter consisting of siren-like, dissonant glissandi. Fractured Barnacles is constructed around a pulsing sequence of changeable speed, while Gldufgsld closes the collection with a floating, consonant chord.
The air is full of electromagnetic signals undetectable to the naked ear. With the proper equipment this ordinarily unheard soundworld can be made audible, recorded and cultivated into musical objects. For Emergent Forms, Australian sound experimentalist Timothy Allen used a JrF induction coil pickup to record signals from a variety of everyday sources—household appliances and fixtures, computers, and the like. The recordings were then arranged and processed in order to allow their latent pitches and harmonics to emerge. And in this hour-long single track of mutating textures and timbres one can hear a kind of elemental musicality asserting itself out of the raw sonic material of buzzes, crackles and humming drones. The piece is heavily textured–almost tangibly so, as much of the pitch aspect of the sound is fused into its timbres. These latter make for a thick weave of rough and burred and—somehow visual imagery comes to mind—shimmering, iridescent layers of sound. When pitches do emerge they tend to move slowly, singly or in vertical stacks; the harmonies are often static and suspended, though occasionally resolving. Allen’s extracted sounds can be heard mimicking the voices of a pipe organ, tubular bells, or other pitched percussion. The signals’ periodicity is brought out in the variable rhythms of clicks, chirps and beat-frequencies that run throughout like a kind of subterranean sound stream. Evocative stuff from the ostensible silence that surrounds us.
Caroline Park: RIM [vuzh 047]
Caroline Park’s RIM, a new EP released on the Vuzh netlabel, presents two works exemplifying a generative or systems approach to sound art. Both pieces take minimal initial input material and subject it to controlled or semi-controlled processes, the result of which is a complex output.
The first track, we can be what they are doing, feeds in a brief sample of a viola to a layered system of delays. The output is an overlap of sounds varying in length and tonal complexity, which in turn are fed back into the system for further processing and reprocessing. The reiteration of these more or less fixed processes gives way to semi-chaotic results. The second track, Live at Studio Soto, takes several pitch sets generated by sine wave oscillators and runs them through structured combinatorial operations. In both tracks the layering of transformative processes creates a rich, shimmering weave of converging and diverging harmonies, pitch shifts and variable dynamics, the cumulative aural pattern of which is highly convoluted. Yet there are moments of transparency when the source material is laid bare.
Although both pieces’ compositional focus is on process this isn’t to the detriment of the end results, which are pleasing in their own right. Park’s iterative structures are designed to generate relationships between specifically audible elements, and in the end it is precisely the sound that remains with us. Thus RIM shows that a systems aesthetic can be sensually appealing as well as conceptually compelling.