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: Elliott Sharp – Plastový Hrad (2019; Infrequent Seams)

Sharp_Plastovy_Hrad_COVER_1400x1400_James_IlgenfritzComposer, 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.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: Sound American No. 21 “The Change Issue”

Sound American is an online music journal that trumpeter, composer, writer, Nate Wooley began publishing in 2012. The journal generally focuses on radical experimental music. Each issue is organized around a topic or theme. Sound American’s content is as serious and as high quality as any music oriented academic journal but without any of the trappings of academic writing. Contributing writers are critics, musicians and thinkers whom are able to communicate their ideas in plain language.  Issues have focused on musicians such as Anthony Braxton, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, David Dunn, Don Cherry, Christian Wolfe, and Cornelius Cardew. Topics such as Gospel Music, Networking, Instrument Building, Ritual, Jazz, and Propaganda have been explored.

The current issue Sound American No. 21 “The Change Issue” is a bit of a departure from the previous volumes. Nate Wooley remains the editor but has expanded the operation in terms of organization and formats. Behind the scenes Sound American has now expanded to more of an institutional framework with both advisory and editorial boards. Along with the freely available web version there are now print, print and audio, and digital subscription formats. The high-quality print format of Sound American No. 21 “The Change Issue” is beautifully done. The issue features words by or about Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Ornette Coleman, Nicole Kaack, Bradford Bailey, G. Lucas Crane, Jennie Gottschalk, Ambrose Akinmusire, Mats Gustafsson, Peter Margasak, Terry Riley, Kim Brandt, John Cage, Josh Sinton, Edgard Varése, Marc Hannaford, John Zorn, Matthew Mehlan, Million Tongues Festival, Alex Mincek, Lester St. Louis, and Steve Lehman.

Sound American is a great resource for anyone interested in experimental music. I find the journal’s writing to be passionate, informative and thought provoking. Each issue invites readers to explore new sounds and new ideas written by some of today’s most interesting writers, thinkers and musicians. Visit the site and check out the current issue. Browse the archive of back issues. You will most likely find yourself visiting the site again and again. If you find Sound American to be as valuable as I think it is, then please consider subscribing.

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

AMN Reviews: “The Happiness Handbook” – The Instruments of Happiness, Tim Brady [Starkland ST-232]

ST-232 Instruments of Happiness_The Happiness Handbook_Cover_HiRes

In the 20th century the electric guitar was invented and then proceeded to globally dominate popular music for decades. But the electric guitar is still somewhat of an outsider in the world of contemporary composition. Many conservatories and university music schools still do not allow students to select the electric guitar as their principal instrument of study. But despite this situation we now have several generations of highly trained electric guitarists possessing both the skills and the interest in playing something other than popular music.

In the last forty years or so a new chamber format has appeared all over the planet – the electric guitar quartet. The electric guitar quartet offers contemporary composers a chamber ensemble with an enormous sonic palette, an instrument familiar to all kinds of listeners, a globally increasing number of skilled instrumentalists and no defined “style” or accepted common practice. All of this has led to an increase in new works for the electric guitar. The Sheer Pluck Database of Contemporary Guitar Music  currently contains more than six thousand entries of works specifically for or that include the electric guitar.

Still much of the interest from composers in writing for the electric guitar has largely stemmed from the efforts of a small group of proponents. A leader among these proponents is composer/guitarist Tim Brady. Brady has spent more than thirty years composing and commissioning new works, organizing concerts and performing new works for the electric guitar.  Whether it be for the opera, the orchestra or the electric guitar quartet, Tim Brady is a composer whose compositional eclecticism synthesizes the sounds of classical, folk, rock, jazz, noise, improvisation, and electronics into his own personal sound world.

“The Happiness Handbook” is the second album on Starkland from the electric guitar quartet configuration of Tim Brady’s ensemble known as “The Instruments of Happiness”. The album features premiere recordings of compositions from Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell, Emily Hall and Tim Brady. Each of the composers explore many of the unique sonic abilities of the electric guitar and often reference popular electric guitar styles and techniques. Style wise the compositions generally fall into the new tonality and post minimalist aesthetics; making the album ideal for a wide range of audiences.

“The Instruments of Happiness” quartet members Marc-Oliver Lamontagne, Jonathan Barriault, Simon Duchesne and Tim Brady have playing skills that are deep and wide.  The quartet is extremely well versed in everything from classical chamber music to popular music to extended techniques and experimental music including electronic effects and pedals. As an ensemble they are tight, lyrical and energetic.  They play with a wide range of dynamics and control and are able to move effortlessly from an ensemble of highly independent voices to performing as one large instrument.

“The Happiness Handbook” opens with Scott Godin’s “Martlandia” which explores swelling chords and intricately articulated themes with shades of progressive rock. Tim Brady’s “Equal But Opposite Reaction” combines standard and extended techniques with electronics into a wonderful contrapuntal kaleidoscope that covers a lot of ground.

Jordon Nobles “Deep Field” would make a great sci fi soundtrack with its swells of sounds that roll by as it moves slowly through deep space. It’s as if a flamenco and blues gesture were combined and intertwined; then slowed down a few hundred times while slowly twisting and turning to reveal itself.  A wonderful piece!  Maxime McKinley’s “Reflects de Francesca Woodman” begins with harmonics bouncing and refracting off of one another that eventually builds up into jagged variations on a bluesy theme only to finds its way back into a refractive meditative state. Gordon Fitzell’s “Bomb Crater Garden” is an aggressive mix of clear harmonics and scattered noisy sounds. It beautifully utilizes extended techniques and electronics to slowly build up and then melt away into a kind of noisy slide guitar bird song.  The album ends with Emily Hall’s “The Happiness Handbook”. A suite of five short movements that covers a lot of ground as it celebrates the sheer joy of playing the electric guitar.

“The Happiness Handbook” is a wonderful album. Many AMN readers will enjoy this album, especially guitarists. I think the album should have appeal not just with the minimalist/post minimalist, new music and experimental guitar crowds. “The Happiness Handbook” may be an ideal gateway recording to introduce progressive rock and fusion listeners to contemporary electric chamber music.  So, give it a listen!

Highly Recommended!

Chris De Chiara

Sound American 21: The Change Issue

Sound American is very excited to announce a new step in our growth as one of the preeminent music journals in America. Beginning on May 6th, we’ll be releasing each issue in print form. Although we will continue to make each issue available for free online at www.soundamerican.org, we are taking a step to meet the long-standing demands of our readership to make each issue available in a physical, collectible form.

Designed by Mike Dyer of Remake Designs (designer of the recent Donald Judd: Writings publication), each issue is:
– Printed using offset lithography in a special Pantone color throughout (which will change each issue)
– Bound with the highest quality thread-sewn binding, using cold glue and Otabind™, so the book lies open and stays completely flat, and will last for a lifetime.
– Printed on Holmen paper, an excellent Swedish stock
– Printed by die Keure, one of the finest book printers in the world in a limited edition of 500

Sound American 21: The Change Issue will be released on May 6th online and in print.  The Change Issue is the first in a new editorial format and features words by or about Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Ornette Coleman, Nicole Kaack, Bradford Bailey, G. Lucas Crane, Jennie Gottschalk, Ambrose Akinmusire, Mats Gustafsson, Peter Margasak, Terry Riley, Kim Brandt, John Cage, Josh Sinton, Edgard Varése, Marc Hannaford, John Zorn, Matthew Mehlan, Million Tongues Festival, Alex Mincek, Lester St. Louis, and Steve Lehman.