Monday, December 31, 2007

Favourite Live Sets 2007

I posted this list elsewhere recently, my favourite live sets of 2007. I was lucky / determined enough to see over 80 sets of live music this year, and here are the best of them. Obviously I'm relying mainly on memory here and of course you can't compare two shows several months apart, but I've ranked them vaguely by the impression they have left on me now at the end of the year.

1. John Tilbury playing Morton Feldman's For Bunita Marcus, Dublin, March.
2. Keith Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura duo, Parthenay, July.
3. Angharad Davies solo. Parthenay, July
4. Lucio Capece, Julia Eckhardt, Christian Kesten, Radu Malfatti, Toshimaru Nakamura, Taku Sugimoto septet, Brussels, May
5. Irvine Arditti playing Luigi Nono's La Lontananza.., London, October
6. Keith Rowe solo, Aberdeen, June
7. MIMEO, Huddersfield, November
8. Arditti Quartet playing Luigi Nono's Fragmente-Stille, London, October.
9. Andrea Neumann, John Tilbury duo, Dublin March
10. SLW (Rhodri Davies, Burkhard Beins, Lucio capece, Toshimaru Nakamura) Parthenay, July.
11. The Sealed Knot, Dublin, February.
12. Maurizio Pollini playing Luigi Nono's ...sofferte onde serene, London, October
13. Will Guthrie solo. Nottingham, February
14. Angharad Davies, David Lacey, Lee Patterson, Paul Vogel quartet. Dublin, July.
15. John Wall solo. Bristol, December.
16. Cranc, Parthenay, July.
17. Joe Colley, Eric le Casa duo. Dublin, March.
18. Angharad Davies, Michael Duch, Julia Eckhardt trio playing Taku Sugimoto's 29th November. London, November
19. Northern Sinfonia playing Radu Malfatti's Gateshead 21, Gateshead, May.
20. Angharad Davies, Tisha Mukarji, Andrea Nemann, Gateshead, May

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Favourite Albums of 2007

So its that time of the year again... Every year I ask myself if I should be doing this or not, but what the hell its just a bit of fun, and if you can't have fun this time of year when can you? Like last year this list does not include any Cathnor releases. Despite only putting out two discs this year I am very proud of both of them, and if someone else had released them they would both have made the top five. MIMEO's sight may even have been pushing The Room for the top slot as I really think its that special, but fortunately that isn't a choice I have to worry about. The list also does not include any re-releases, so as to truly reflect the music that was made in 2007. I'll probably do some kind of list of older music that has affected me this year soon, there's quite a bit of it! Anyway, here you are, my top twenty after considerable consideration. Feel free to argue!

1. Keith Rowe - The Room

Yeah the predictable choice, but really this wouldn't be here if it wasn't so damned good. The Room manages to pull together so many of the loose ends that have inhabited Keith's music over the past decade or so. It includes big references to each of his solo albums, Cardew's Treatise, Rothko, AMM, the list is endless. Its also an incredibly powerful, passionate piece of music that bristles with anger and frustration. There are patches of sheer beauty, others that confront you with their awkwardness, moments of complete surprise and that ending, with the last few moments recorded outside, an all together calmer state of mind putting the album to rest?

Yes I consider Keith a friend, yes I'm probably too close to his music to be completely objective (this is why I haven't written anything about this album all year) but I can only be honest, and when compiling a list of the albums that affected me the most this year The Room has to be number one. Buy it if you haven't already. Erstwhile

2. Taku Unami - Malignitat

Perhaps a slightly controversial second place, but when I listed all the CDs I'd played this year and ranked them by how often I'd played them, and how much impact they had had on me Malignitat couldn't be ignored. I wrote about this album here so I won't go into more detail, but I will say that right now Unami strikes me as one of the most interesting (if not always consistent) musicians working today. Hibari

3. Sachiko M - Salon de Sachiko

A late arrival, so a CD that hasn't had the time to affect me that some of the others here have, but has made an immediate impact. I have long admired Sachiko's music, but when considering her solo music I wasn't alone in wondering where on earth she could go after the finite minimalism of Bar de Sachiko. Salon takes a sidestep from the sinewaves yet retains the austere intensity of her previous work, small twittering sounds, scratches and bleeps spaced apart, seemingly without any kind of progression through the album, making careful listening an arduous, yet ultimately rewarding experience. Close focus allows you into the acute soundworld Sachiko is investigating, almost foraging into it as if seeking something hidden amongst the musical undergrowth. Given the right time and attention (sorry Mattin!) Salon is an engaging, captivating album.Ftarri

4. Lucio Capece, Toshimaru Nakamura - iJ

Since the release of between I've sensed that Toshi Nakamura's duo recordings have been judged (perhaps subconsciously) by many with his duo with Keith Rowe used as some kind of benchmark. This seems a little unfair to me. Toshi's work with Rowe is something special, perhaps unsurpassed in this area of music, but his duo work with other musicians each have their own qualities and concerns quite different again. Lucio Capece has been one musician to really impress me this year. His sensitivity as a collaborative musician really shines through on iJ, particularly at the start of the first track, as the duo allow their understated sounds to brew and simmer before they are allowed to bubble over. Nakamura's ability to control the wild unpredictability of feedback is probably better displayed on this disc than any before as well. Overall this is just a great CD that captures a musical conversation between two great players. I can't wait to someday hear the fruits of their recent trio work with Rowe. Formed

5. Klaus Lang - einfalt.stille

I wrote about this release here, so again little more to say. This CD is quite different from those listed above, choosing to project calm rather than tension onto the listener. I just find Lang's work immensely, stunningly gorgeous, and sometimes thats more than enough to win me over. Definitely the most beautiful music released this year, Robert Zank's support of Lang through his Editions RZ label is further testament to the man's exceptional taste.

6. Axel Dorner, Toshimaru Nakamura - Vorhernach

Another duo from Toshi Nakamura, this time with trumpeter Axel Dorner on the Ftarri label, wrapped up in a typically nice sleeve. Vorhernach is a million miles from iJ though. Again, my thoughts on it are here. Vorhernach seems to me to be more about the collision of two great musicians' contributions rather than the close interplay of iJ. Whilst iJ sucks the listener in, Vorhernach is a tough nut to crack, but its well worth the effort persevering. Ftarri

7. Radu Malfatti - Rain speak soft tree listens

One of the twelve CDR releases put out by Mr Malfatti during 2007. This is easily my favourite, and also somewhat ironically the most unusual of them all. A quiet, contemplative piece for string quartet, piano and massed whispered voices, I first heard Rain speak... played on the Wandelweiser radio stream and was immediately intrigued. The composition sets the slowly spoken words of a Robert Lax poem to a background of overlapping folds of dry strings, single piano notes and long silences, creating a room-filling atmosphere of eerie warmth.  B-boim

8. Klaus Lang - Missa beati paperes spiritu

More from Lang, this time his virtually ignored mass on the Col Legno label. Lang reclaims the beauty of the mass form from religion, keeping the structure of the form intact, adding modern instrumentation and slowing things down to create a richly beautiful piece of music. As with einfalt.stille, this release merits its place purely as a stunningly gorgeous thing to behold. Designed to relax the listener rather than challenge them, Lang's music succeeds in an area where most other music fails. I wrote about this one in this post.

9. Angharad Davies, Tisha Mukarji - endspace.

Another late arrival, released only in early December, but one I had been waiting for. Violinist Davies has probably been the most consistently interesting improvisor in the UK for over a year now, but has been underrepresented on disc. This album, with another remarkably talented and under-recorded young improviser Mukarji (acoustic inside piano) goes some way to fill that gap. Precise, simple chamberlike structures, all very fragile in their construction. Restrained and made up of only the essential elements, but never really disappearing into silence. This probably hasn't been heard by too many people yet, that really should change soon. Another Timbre

10. Eric Carlsson, David Lacey, Martin Kuchen, Paul Vogel - Chipshop Music

Unsettling, muscular music from Ireland's two finest musicians in collaboration with Swedes Carlsson and Kuchen. This CD formed the soundtrack for my drive to work every day for several weeks. Engaging, demanding music with a real spark of vitality and joy at its heart. Self released by Lacey and Vogel on Homefront recordings. No website yet, drop me an email and I can put you in touch to buy a copy.

11. Mark Wastell - Come Crimson Rays

The third and final in Wastell's series of solo tam-tam releases, and easily the best of the bunch. This time a degree of silence finds its way between the swathes of agitated metal, breaking up the rolling washes of sound, leading to a solemn, haunting piece of almost ritualistic music. Late night music. Kning Disk

12. Bhob Rainey, RLW - I don't think I can see you tonight

The end result of months of swapping reworked, edited and added-to soundfiles, this album slipped out right at the start of 2007. A finely sculpted concrete collage of bits of improvisations, field recordings and other odds and ends, I don't think... manages to retain a vibrancy and originality despite its elongated method of creation. Sedimental

13. Ryu Hankil, Jin Sangtae, Taku Unami, Mattin – 5 Modules III

There seemed to be a never ending stream of releases in 2007 from just a handful of musicians in South Korea. Most were worth hearing, but this one stood out from the rest as something different, slightly unsettling and somewhat confusing. Its far from coincidence that the names Unami and Mattin are involved. I wrote about this release here back in September and to be honest I'm still not even sure that I like the CD, but its certainly one I've played over and over in an attempt to fathom it all out. Manual

14. The Sealed Knot - Live at the Red Hedgehog 29th October 2006.

One of my favourite groups in full flow, here in quite raucous, energetic mood. Its rare that a CD release of a concert I attended comes out sounding as good as I remember it being, but this is one such case. Ironically I saw the group play again a few months later in Ireland and they sounded very different, quieter, more sparse and perhaps even more to my liking, but that show didn't get recorded. Such is life. Top quality acoustic improvisation. The Confront website is temporarily down.

15. Annette Krebs, Robin Hayward - sgraffito

Chosen particularly for the great opening track on the album, sgraffito is a self released CDR of duets from two of Berlin's most established improvisers really coaxing the best from each other. Not your everyday call-and-response improv, with Krebs in particular playing in a fractured, erratic manner, bursts of radio and samples fly in and out of the music as commonly as the scrapes and fizzes from her guitar, all wrapped around Hayward's equally unpredictable tuba playing. There might eventually be a website for Annette's releases here, but drop her an email to purchase this release.

16. Radu Malfatti, Jurg Frey, Michael Pisaro – Three Backgrounds

Another from the glut of releases from Radu Malfatti's B-boim label. I wrote up all twelve discs here. This was an easy second choice from Malfatti, perhaps again as it sounds quite different from the other releases he put out. The room noise definitely becomes the foreground to the three backgrounds performed by the musicians on this one. A great release that I hear new things in every time I play it.

17. Taku Sugimoto, Mitsuhiro Yoshimura - Not BGM and so on

Yoshimura's appearance with his strong debut release And so on on his own (h)earrings label early in the year set people talking in hip circles. His duo with Taku Sugimoto released later in 2007 essentially captures the same kind of performance from Yoshimura, but this time with added curious interventions from Sugimoto to give the music an additional dimension. Yoshimura has certainly been one of the finds of 2007 with more promised for the coming year, and I could have chosen either of his releases as they show his music in equal light, but the duo disc gets the nod. My review is here

18. Takefumi Naoshima, Hirozumi Takeda, Utah Kawasaki, Toshihro Koike, Takehiro Kawauchi, Yasuo Totsuka - Septet

Writing these brief descriptions here I've actually surprised myself at how much I actually managed to write this year about the music I really enjoyed. A write-up of this disc is here. What happens when music is played so quietly that you can't tell the accidental shuffling of the musicians trying to remain still from the music itself? You discover a strange, alien soundworld for one, but how much was intentional and how much pure chance? Only you, the listener can decide...! Meena

19. Axel Dorner, Lucio Capece – s/t

Two of Toshimaru Nakamura's collaborators on disc this year together in a duo. Acoustic bass clarinet and trumpet duets full of writhing, bright interplay between two fine improvisers. These two also released a trio disc with the addition of Robin Hayward that could easily have made this list on another day, but tonight in a head to head battle this duo release won through. Rarely a year passes without at least one great release from the l'innomable label. This year was no exception.

20. Tomas Korber, Katsura Yamauchi, Christian Weber – Signal to Noise Vol.2

Swiss improv received an awful lot of (in my opinion largely unjustified) bad press in 2007, and this situation wasn't helped by the other two no-so-great releases in the Signal to Noise series on the For 4 Ears label. This release however, the second in that series blows the others away with its understated on/off structure of short blasts, tones and bass throbs. Guitar and electronics, (Korber) trumpet, (Yamauchi) and double bass (Weber) combine in an unusual and very satisfying manner. Tomas Korber's second best release of the year! ;)

So there you go. Sorry to anyone I've forgotten. I don't doubt that there will be numerous releases I will suddenly think of now that I've published this that I should have included, but hey ho, such is life. Writing this, a couple of interesting things occurred to me. Firstly the top three in the list are all solos. this is something that I hadn't noticed until now, and I don't know what that signifies (if anything) but its interesting to note. Also, six of the twenty are CDR releases, really highlighting to me that its the music that really matters, irrelevant on how much it cost to release the CD...

Lets hope 2008 is just as strong a year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Catching Up

Well I had intended writing at length about all of the concerts I caught towards the end of this year, but time and creative and physical energies haven't allowed for that, so here's a very brief round-up to bring things up to date. A few days after returning from Huddersfield I attended the three night LMC Festival in London of which I still aim to get a "proper" review up at Bagatellen before too much longer, so I'll move on to the 11th December and a London show at the Red Rose Club promoted by the increasingly influential No-Signal people.

The admirable premise that seems to exist behind No-Signal's concerts is to blend different forms of music and their audiences together within one event. This show entitled STFU followed on from other concerts this year that have attracted fans of both noise music and improvised music to the same event. This has resulted in some impressively large audience turn-outs, although the noise contingent have tended to outnumber their improv companions about three to one at the shows I've attended. So this concert sold out in advance, something I can't imagine has happened to a Red Rose show for quite a few years.

The main reason for the high attendance numbers was probably the appearance of Stephen O'Malley, the front man of Sunn O)) (sorry if I spelt that incorrectly) in a duo with Oren Ambarchi that closed the show. These two have played together a good few times in the past and I have been able to listen to recordings they have released together, so I kind of knew what to expect. Loud, deep and very very slow guitar chords from O'Malley trudged out around Ambarchi's scribbling electronics and heavy tones. I don't dislike this music as such, but as it went on for quite some time with only gradual shifts in form and slowly increasing in volume it was just very very obvious and somewhat boring in its construction. I felt the need to reach out and hold down the fast forward button to see where the performance ended up, but in the end as my companions decided to leave before the conclusion of the set I followed them out, left somewhat unfulfilled by the evening in general, but by this last set in particular. Maybe it ended in spectacular fashion, but I somewhat doubt it.

Before the O'Malley / Ambarchi conclusion to the evening we had had to suffer (I'm sorry but I can't think of a more suitable choice of word) the combination of the Portugese duo Osso Exotico and the percussionist Z'Ev. I'd wandered to the back of the overcrowded room for this one, fearing high volumes, so I didn't see what instruments the Osso Exotico trio were playing, but they made a kind of lolloping, off-kilter drone that lost my interest after just a few minutes. Z'Ev's contribution seemed to be scraping metal sounds and almost ceremonial strikes of a gong in a semi-rhythmical manner underneath all of this, but the end result, played at high volume really sounded flat, lacking in any detail and generally just wholly uninteresting. Whilst not displaying any of the onstage aggression of much noise music the performance still seemed to me to be reliant on the force of the music's volume to motivate the audience, which is never a good sign to me.

Working backwards then, the second set of the evening had come from the duo of Mark Wastell on tam tam and Joachim Nordwall on laptop and electronics. I had seen this duo play at the first concert I attended in 2007 in the basement of Sound323. Here, with the added dimension of a big PA the duo were able to play much louder than in that earlier performance. Nordwall, who runs the iDEAL label in Sweden and is one of the group The Skull Defekts works mainly within a narrow range of grey textures and post-industrial rumbling, occasionally bringing the volume up to levels approaching what could be categorised as "noise" music. Into this somewhat bleak backdrop Wastell fed his now trademark washes of subtle tam tam, all soft roars devoid of attack, and carefully placed strikes with a variety of beaters. For anyone that has not witnessed Wastell perform with this instrument live the degree of dexterity with which he addresses the metal disc these days is quite remarkable. Sounds seem to slip in and out of range with only the barest of physical movement applied by the musician.

The patterns in the music created as the acoustic and electronic sounds collided were interesting, but somehow I didn't take much more from this performance. The basic structure seemed to be for Nordwall to create a backdrop and for Wastell to add (admittedly very beautiful) sound to it at carefully chosen points. There seemed to be little communication beyond this one way conversation, not unlike a two-man graffiti team, with one filling the void with big patches of colour, and the other drawing the outlines, giving the work form. The end result was not displeasing in any way, but was perhaps a little safe and predictable.

The opening act of the evening was the acoustic guitar duo of Tetuzi Akiyama and Hervé Boghossian.The pair sat opposite each other in the centre of the room and played a kind of duelling blues improvisation, not far in style from Akiyama's early acoustic style circa Relator and reminiscent of John Fahey duetting with Derek Bailey, only not quite at that level. I quite enjoyed this set, which wasn't what I had been expecting, given Boghossian's usual preference for coaxing drones from his instrument and Akiyama's occasional penchant for throbbing electric riffs. The interplay between the two was left very naked in the centre of the room with the large crowd gathered around and they handled things very well, building a finely assembled web of picked notes and scrapes, and the occasional grab of false-starting melody. Maybe nothing dramatically original took place here, but I found this intimate little performance engaging all the same.


The next day I drove over to Bristol to catch a small concert in the café space of the Spike Island Arts Centre housed in an old Brooke Bond tea factory on the banks of the River Avon. the gallery was closed for the evening when I arrived, which was a shame, and the café area was perhaps not the best of spaces to hold a concert, the long thin room reflecting the musicians sound back at them a little too easily, but having never attended a gig in Bristol before it was nice to venture out to somewhere new.

First on the two-performance bill was the trio of Ben Drew (laptop), Helena Gough (laptop) and Lee Patterson (all kinds of stuff!). In mid November I had barely heard of Helena Gough, but here less than a month later I was attending my third concert involving her. The first I wrote about a couple of posts back, a duo with Patterson in Huddersfield, the second had been a solo performance at the LMC Festival that I had also enjoyed. Here, Lee's input was considerably different to their previous show, as he utilised pre-recorded material more in combination with assorted guitar pick-ups and contact miked metal. It was very difficult to tell Gough's input apart from Ben Drew's as they played through a PA and the sound swirled around the small space, but generally speaking he seemed to provide cleaner, more linear sounds to her minutae field recordings.

Combined, the trio created a heaving mass of sound, shifting glimpses of detail, bits of field recordings strewn between bursts of colourful tones and Patterson's naturally occurring abstractions. The effect reminded me of looking through a kaleidoscope that is turning continually, the overall sensation one of beauty, yet made up of thousands of relentless individual events, none of which stay around long enough to study in detail.

The second half of the evening featured a rare solo performance by John Wall, who has recently taken to improvising live with a laptop, often in the company of Lee Gamble with whom he has struck up a seemingly fruitful partnership, but here he performed a short, sharp set alone. I should make it clear that John Wall's recorded work, meticulously constructed over many months on a computer has had a major impact on my life over the years. If I was to list my favourite albums of all time at least two, maybe three of his albums would make the top ten. John's improvised work is a very different beast however. On the surface it resembles many other Max/MSP styled laptop improvisations by other musicians. Many of the telltale characteristics of this kind of playing are there, the dramatic shifts of dynamic, the phased sounds, the familiar stretched qualities of music made with a soundcard pushed to its limits, but for me its impossible to forget that this is John Wall playing, and the bigger picture that that brings is considerably more interesting.

John has taken to improvisation almost out of desperation as his compositional work, always very slow to progress at the best of times has ground to a halt. In his own words he feels he had forced himself into a corner, and going out and experimenting with the wild freedom (by his standards) of live improvisation has given him a vehicle to break free from the cul-de-sac he felt he was trapped in. The music played at this concert was clearly the work of John Wall, the trademark sounds and intricate structures were still there, but here they were wrapped up in an almost violently intense shell, careering viciously at times, dropping into tension filled hollows at others.

Wall only played for about twenty minutes, maybe less, and spent the duration of the set stood up, rocking about around the computer, his face wrought with energy until the wrenching end of the performance when he stood up, shrugged to the small audience and went to sit down. Chatting with John after the show the creative energy flowing through him right now since this switch to improvisation was very evident, and whilst for all its power and tension this performance didn't come close to capturing the sheer magic of his composed work, John's hope is that this way of working will bring new energy and ideas to his more contemplative music. Personally speaking if anything helps this inspirational man continue to make the music I've come to admire so much then its got to be a good thing.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Its grim oop North (but I wouldn't want it any other way)

Whilst oop in Huddersfield and with a few hours to kill on Saturday morning I made my way (in the relentlessly pouring rain) to the Huddersfield Art Gallery, housed in an old Georgian (I think) building that also contains the town's library. My main reason for attending the gallery (apart from the fact that there is absolutely nothing else to do of worth on a wet Saturday in Huddersfield!) was to catch the two installations linked to the Contemporary Music Festival shown there.

I didn't expect to see much else of interest in the gallery's everyday collection, but then I had forgotten that I was in Lowry country here, and I was really pleased to see a couple of his paintings hanging around the corner from an awful display of Contemproray Pakistani art. The above painting is called Huddersfield and was painted in 1965.

I'm not sure what it is I enjoy about Lowry's work. He doesn't tick any of the usual boxes that trigger my interest in a painting. There is however some kind of homely, warm feeling about his work that I enjoy a lot. This painting reminds me a lot of the St Ives school of painters that I have closely studied from time to time, the childlike friendliness of the painting reminding me of Alfred Wallis, the dodgy perspective of Ben Nicholson. Above all there is a resounding Englishness about his work that probably doesn't translate so well abroad. (I don't know, Brian?) This painting perfectly captures the charm of a Northern English industrial town, and whilst I might make jokes here about the grim, murky qualities of Huddersfield it certainly oozes its own deep-seated character that I find impossible to not be charmed by. The Lowry above somehow portrays this perfectly. Although forty years old the town is still there in the painting, the colours, the activity, the people. Finding this little gem put a smile on my face for the rest of the weekend.

The two installations linked to the music festival shown in the gallery were created (separately) by Michael Prime and Janek Schaefer. I have seen Michael Prime's work Ha! Where have all your mushrooms gone? before, though I struggle to remember exactly where. (Maybe the Sonic Boom show at the Hayward Gallery a while back?) It consists of three tanks containing live mushrooms growing, each with biosensors attached. When you walk near to a tank a further sensor detects your presence and begins to translate the natural biorhythms given off by the fungi into electronic sound, buzzes and gentle drilling noises. As more than one person wander around the installation the sounds come and go in quite interesting patterns, but I have to say that after the initial novelty of hearing mushrooms make music had passed there wasn't much of lingering interest for me here.

On CD Janek Schaefer has generally speaking managed to underwhelm me on almost every occasion I've heard his work. Its not bad in any way, just not that interesting either. I didn't get my hopes up too high then for his installation piece entitled Extended Play: Tryptich for the Child Survivors of War and Conflict. However I quite enjoyed this installation. Schaefer set up nine old gramophone players in the space, arranged into three groups of three. He then wrote and had performed a piece of music for piano, violin and cello and pressed each of the parts onto separate vinyl discs so that each of the three groups of players had one machine playing each of the instrument parts. The players were each modified so as to play continually, returning the cartridge to the start of the record each time it ended, but a hidden sensor in each machine detected the presence of someone stood close to it and stopped the player until the person moved away.

The music itself was a mournful, somewhat minimal piece of music, reminiscent of Feldman's later works, though not so remarkable in itself. The interesting part of the installation however came as the individual players stopped and started at random intervals as people came close, causing the different instruments to shift in and out of phase with each other, creating more of a mass of sympathetic sounds rather than one structured composition. I must also admit I had great fun alone in the gallery that rainy Saturday morning hopping from machine to machine trying to impact the overall sound as much as possible, or at least I did until the somewhat surly looking security guard came along and looked at me as if I was a lunatic....

I hope that Schaefer resists the temptation to ever release a recording of the Extended Play material, as separated from the installation it wouldmake for a pretty uninteresting listen, but here I quite enjoyed its impact. One thing, the installation was designed according to Schaefer to be "a contemplative, emotional, optimistic & uplifting experience of continuously unfurling sound ... a bitter sweet tribute to the child survivors of conflict and war." I would agree that it achieved some of these aims, but I certainly didn't find it particularly uplifting. Reading the associated notes in the gallery certainly caused me to reflect on the carnage caused by war, but I have to say it left me feeling somewhat depressed and pessimistic about the state of the world today.

When you've been brought down to earth by such a sombre experience walking out in the rainsoaked streets of Huddersfield town centre probably isn't the best medicine to give you that quick pick-me-up, but I found some solace in wandering around noting some of the more amusing shops in the town centre. Hidden amongst the many discount stores and cheap booze off licenses can be found Jack Fulton's World of Frozen Value (I'm not sure why that's funny but it is!) a shop called Fartown with a hand painted sign that really accentuates the Fart part of the name, and a hairdressers again with a handpainted sign, this time called Headquaters. Please note, it wasn't Headquarters as that essential letter R was missing, perhaps deliberately, but I quite like the idea that the sign was misspelt so they changed the name of the business.... Unfortunately my photos of these shops didn't come out as my camera battery died, but once I switched to my camera phone I did manage to take this last pic, possibly of the most oddly titled store of them all... poor Ivor, that's all I can say.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Its grim oop North (but the music's great) No.2

Insert: Standard blog post introduction about how I've been too tired/busy/lazy to post for over a month
Yeah its been a hectic few weeks, blah blah...
I have managed to make it out to quite a few concerts in the last few weeks though, and I'm going to try and catch up on them all in brief here over the next few days. A review of the LMC Festival is also nearly complete (its painful this isn't it?) and should see the light of day very soon.
A couple of weeks back now I also wandered up the M1 to again experience the delights of the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield, home of the often good Contemporary Music Festival and... well not much else really.

My primary reason for making the long trip oop North though was to catch the rare event on the Friday evening of all eleven members of MIMEO playing together in one place, something they haven't managed to do for quite a while. The group performed a ninety minute long live version of sight, their 2007 release on my Cathnor label, so witnessing this concert kind of closed a circle for me personally. As sight the CD project strove to reproduce the intimacy of a live performance between musicians completely separated in time and space, the live performance ironically attempted the reverse, bringing the dislocated intuition of the CD project to a concert hall situation (or a cotton dye blending shed situation in this case.)

sight the CD project explored the relationship between eleven musicians that had played together as a unit (albeit sporadically) for ten years. For anyone unaware (shame on you!) the CD was compiled (literally) by superimposing eleven sixty minute recordings made independently by the musicians to create one piece. The only rule being that each musician could only place approximately five minutes of sound onto their individual recordings. For the live recording the musicians were all tasked to find their own way of arriving as close as possible to the situation they were in for the creation of the CD, but to then bring the music alive in front of an audience.

The musicians used a variety of methods to recreate the physical disconnection. Some (mainly the laptoppers, but I believe also Keith Rowe) had pre-prepared soundfiles sat on their machines. These were then either partially manipulated live or in the case of Fennesz and maybe others, merely set running for the duration of the performance. Others played in a more traditional manner, either using a rigid score for their contributions or trusting themselves to play without regard for the other sounds around them. As Cor Fuhler played the inside of a piano, and Thomas Lehn and some of the other electronic musicians did not have the ability to instantly play back a soundfile we had an interesting mix of methods used. The musicians also all dressed in black and performed in an unlit room, reflecting the black-on-black minimalism of the CD sleeve.

The musicians also set themselves the one restraint of playing for roughly only five minutes each across the hour and a half. This five minutes could be broken into small sections and spread across the time, as with the CD. Listening in the room to the live result it was quite clear that some of the musicians chose to play quite a bit more than this however. The overall result was rather special. Although there was more music per square inch here than on the CD release there were still plenty of long, charged silences. It was incredible to hear MIMEO play this quietly, this restrained, something they have never achieved before. The half broken uncertainty of the CD was very much present. In some places sounds from different musicians came together beautifully to form lovely little vignettes, whilst elsewhere the random nature of the performance was all too clear.

I'm probably far too close the the sight project to write objectively on the performance, so I will leave it there I think. One last observation that amused me a little... as Fennesz (and I think also Marcus Schmickler though I am not definite) sat in front of me just listening to the performance unfold as they let a single soundfile run, it occurred to me that they had become as much a part of the audience as the rest of us, their input to the concert already decided and allowed to unfold on a machine. As we (the audience) sat on our uncomfortable chairs trying to remain quiet so did they, for a while breaking down the normal relationship between musician and listener. At one point Kaffe Matthews could be heard to cough during a silence and (I might be wrong here, it was dark!) Cor Fuhler seemed to wander to the bar at one point, returning with a drink. This blurring of the roles reminded me of how I felt when I first heard the sight CD, part label owner responsible for the release of the work, but also part listener hearing a new release for the first time, all a bit strange all round.

The following night I returned to the same venue, which incidentally is a fully operational part of the Bates' Mill cotton manafacturing factory, with the floorspace of the large room cleared for the weekend's events. Resting machines and pipes could be heard ticking to a slow halt on the first evening as MIMEO played, and on the second as it poured with rain outside (no surprise there) the guttering of the building could be heard straining against the force of the water high in the roof.

This watery intrusion was very much welcome for the first event of the Cut 'n' Splice evening that made up Saturday's events, (well for me anyway, others with less taste went and watched a Fred Frith string quartet ;)) The four or five performances of the Cut 'n' Splice event were all loosely based around the theme of food, cooking it, eating it, and digesting it. The first set, by Helena Gough and Lee Patterson began with that sound of running water in the background, and ironically water sounds were later heard amongst the musician's contributions as well.

Lee is a musician that you really need to catch live to fully appreciate. I have heard him utilise recordings of eggs frying in his perfomances before, but tonight he took things one step further, actually using a small electric hob to fry an egg on stage, the remarkably detailed and chaotic sounds captured by a contact mic and fed into the mix. That mix also included dissolving liver salts, Golden Syrup drizzled over a sheet of contact miked metal, burning pine nuts and no end of other paraphenalia. Helena Gough works with similar found sounds but keeps things far simpler by processing them on a laptop. Here she used a mixture of sounds, some provided in advance by Patterson that she sculpted around his mesh of interwoven detail to produce a very satisfying and somehow living and breathing soundworld.

I retired to the back of the shed when Sudden Infant performed (and that's definitely the correct verb here) the next set. Sudden Infant turned out to be one man, dressed in black, the sleeves cut from his top revealing a mass of tattoos. Essentially he miked up his body and set about running and dancing on the spot, as well as creating deep (and rather disturbing) sounds in his throat. These sounds were fed through a rack of effects he operated via pedals at is feet (plenty of loops there) and then blasted out through the PA into the room. A white light projected Mr Infant's silhouette up onto the wall at the back of the stage. On occasions some interesting things happened as different sounds crossed over each other, but in general I found this set musically tedious and if I'm honest somewhat amusing.

The last set of the evening that I saw was a performance by Tim Parkinson and James Saunders performing a series of kitchen related compositions. They began with the heavily Fluxus related John Cage piece 0'00, which was performed simultaneously with Kunsu Shim's for you.
The Cage piece merely instructs the performer to go about any disciplined action but to do so "in a situation provided with maximum amplification." Shim's piece seems to merely require that the performer prepare and present a cup of tea to a third party.

So Saunders set about cutting up fruit and veg and dropping them into a blender, turning it on every so often to make a smoothie and closing the performance by drinking the end result. Throughout this the table he sat behind and items he used were miked up so as his every sound, ranging from the chopping sounds through to the squeak of his chair were amplified into the room. Whilst Saunders completed this Parkinson boiled a kettle, brewed a pot of tea and presented it to a member of the audience. All in all my response to this performance was not dissimilar to how I react to most Fluxus events I've witnessed, finding the whole thing amusing and great to watch, but musically pretty uninteresting.

Following this the duo performed Alvin Lucier's Opera with objects, a piece requiring the musicians to rhythmically tap everyday objects to discover their individual resonances and, when coupled with other items being tapped their combined shifts in volume and timbre. That's pretty much what they did as well, setting about the table of kitchenalia with small sticks with which they beat out a regular, fast percussive pattern. Although the results were amplified I struggled to really make out the subtle changes in the sounds as the duo moved from object to object and I think I would really have needed to have been sat very close to get the most from this performance, but again it was a thoroughly interesting experiment to watch.

Parkinson and Saunders were joined on stage by John Lely and Andrew Sparling for the final and by far the most successful of the four works they performed, Michael Maierhof's Plastikquartett 2. The programme notes described the composition thus:

"The four players use a set of 6 different sized plastic cups fixed on a table which have quite clear pitches and 3 with more multiphonic qualities. The plastic cups are bowed. With different pressures, angles, velocities of the bow they produce a variety of sound qualities from highest pitches to multiphonic and rattle sounds. The piece is like a very cheap "string quartet" from the supermarket, a "string quartet" for "poor" people who can't afford real string instruments, or just don't like them."

Whilst perhaps that description would suggest a performance of no less novelty value that the preceding three works, (and indeed the sight of Saunders directing the four musicians as they set about plastic cups with bows was a fun one) the music itself was also very nice here. After a while I almost forgot how the brittle scrapes and soft pitches were being made as they overlapped and entangled with each other to create a simple yet continually changing music from a small palette of sounds.

So the icing on the cake of an evening made up from assorted ingredients slowly brought to the boil, left to simmer before being served with a light garnish of absurdity. A hearty dish...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Yearning to listen

After spending all of the summer sat about doing little else but sitting about contemplating my navel and listening to music the return to work this last month has been a bit of a shock to the system. The ridiculously early start to my working day (out of bed at 4.30AM) has meant that my usual preferred listening time, late in the evening has become impossible to maintain as I'm now sound asleep by 11PM.

Listening to music in the late afternoon / early evening is a very different kettle of fish. There are more distractions at this time of the day. Obviously there is still some daylight about and more activity from outside the house seeping in. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the continual interruptions from my brother's appalling taste in music and the general noise about the house certainly are. I'm not used to the shops still being open when I have some free time, and often I end up cooking and listening to music at the same time. So the music continues to arrive here at its usual rate, but as I've struggled to sit down and listen the as yet unheard pile has begun to get out of hand again after I finally managed to clear it down over the summer. There's probably around 40 unlistened to discs about here right now.

So I was very pleased this morning to have some time off of work when I could spend some quality time with Mr and Mrs Left and Right speaker. Some great music absorbed this morning included the Mitsuhiro Yoshimura / Taku Sugimoto disc, more about which somewhere soon, the Tim Feeney / Vic Rawlings duo on Sedimental that I have enjoyed a few times recently, a dreadful recording of what I think sounded like a good performance of Mahler's First Symphony from a ludicrously cheap (and now I know why) box set I picked up recently, and finally a couple of years after its release Jean-Luc Guionnet's splendid Tirets recording for church organ on the Hibari label.

Why tell you all this? No idea really, other than to share my joy at being able to spend some time like this and to show that I am still capable of writing posts of less than 5000 words....

I've just put on Noid's You're not here, another good one. Wish you were though.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Views from across the water

Its been a while since I attended a concert at any of the South Bank Centre venues. Their treatment of the LMC and other small, more experimental promoters a few years back put me off and my attendance at three concerts from their Luigi Nono - Fragments of Venice season this last couple of weeks has been through gritted teeth, but the performances were a little too good to miss.

First up a fortnight ago I attended a performance by the Arditti String Quartet at The Queen Elizabeth Hall. I had to really rush to get to the hall in time for the show, having caught a later train into London than I had planned, and it was whilst puffing and panting with sweat running down my forehead that I made it to the venue just a few minutes before the musicians took the stage. It was only once I was in place in my seat, working on slowing down the palpitations that I realised just how alien my surroundings had become. I'd been shown to my seat by an usher who tried to sell me a couple of folded sheets of paper for £2.50 and looking around even though the hall was only half full there were more people here than at even the biggest festivals I'd been to this year. Yet much of the music I had come to hear tonight wasn't so far removed from other performances I'd seen recently. Its amazing what the association of a "legitimate" organisation like the SBC can do.

The programme began with a performance of Webern's Six Bagatelles. I've listened a lot to these six short pieces this year and they were a nice way to open the evening. Totalling under five minutes I had barely caught my breath before they were over, but the rendition seemed great, perhaps slightly slower than the recorded version I have (by the Schoenberg Quartet) but that could just be my imagination.

This was followed by the main event of the evening (for me at least) and a performance of Luigi Nono's string quartet Fragmente - Stille. I've come to love the Arditti's recording of this music on the Montaigne label a great deal, so hearing it live was a special treat. The music is quiet, full of silence broken up by small, shadowy moments, indeed fragments of intense beauty, softly played small phrases that are not allowed to develop beyond a few seconds and separated by pauses that bring a charged expectancy to the piece. I've always found the recorded version a captivating work that drags you in, demanding your full attention whether you wanted to give it or not, and tonight I have no idea where the 35 minutes went to with this performance, although the music seemed to hang suspended in the air I was amazed how fast time flew by.

Whilst never removing the innate politics of his earlier work, by 1980 when he wrote Fragmente – Stille Nono had shifted his focus more towards an investigation of sound itself and its relationship to the silence surrounding it. This, his only string quartet is possibly the purest embodiment of this later interest.

It was a joy to witness this delicate composition unravel in front of me. Although the membership of the Arditti Quartet has changed significantly since the Montaigne recording the level of concentrated understanding of the music was obvious. Whilst I find it really hard to critically compare a performance of composed music like this to a recording I do know that the ability to watch the music carved out by the musicians in a live setting brought new insight in the music to me. Sections I had thought to be played by single instruments turned out to be combinations of more than one musician playing, the individual contributions of each musician so much more apparent here than on a CD. I was sat very near the front of the large hall for this performance and I'm pleased about this, as I can't imagine the quiet, fragile music travelling too well to the back rows. As it was, where I was sat I caught every moment, every swoop of a bow, every intense frown of a musician and the decay of each sound as it escaped high into the hall. I enjoyed this so so much.

Following an interval spent queuing for a drink that I never managed to get due to woefully inadequate barstaff numbers (get it together SBC...) there came a performance of Schoenberg's second String Quartet, with the addition of Claron McFadden's soprano. It felt strange following the Nono quartet with this, almost as if the evening had been put together in the wrong order. The piece is in four movements, the last two of which include the soprano part. Schoenberg wrote this music at a troubled time in his life, when his wife was having an affair, and its a richly romantic, occasionally melodic piece. It is said that Schoenberg's first attempts at atonal composition appear in the fourth movement here, the first three all being tonal. I'd never heard this composition on CD before, but having read up on it I awaited the fourth movement with anticipation to see if I could hear a significant difference. Whilst maybe not something I would have picked up on without prior knowledge the fourth movement did sound different, slightly more abrasive and expansive. I have to say that I didn't enjoy the addition of the vocal parts however. They seemed to overpower the intimacy of the small chamber group, causing me to somehow listen differently, trying to follow the words rather than absorb the patterns formed between the four musicians. Mcfadden did nothing wrong, I guess I just prefer string quartets without vocals.

One week later I returned to the same venue to attend two concerts, one following the other in the same hall. Arriving earlier this time I grabbed a bite to eat at a noodle bar nearby as I refused to pay the £5 asking price the South Bank placed on a chicken salad roll. (Is my contempt for the SBC obvious enough by now?!)

Tonight the Queen Elizabeth Hall was full for the first concert of the evening, with probably around 1000 people of whom I recognised about half a dozen. Given that tonight's performances bore an even closer relationship to many of the other concerts I attend I found myself wondering just who are all these people, and why will they attend the South Bank on a Wednesday night but not the Red Rose Club? OK, so that may not have been the best comparison to make, but the question is a valid one.

One good answer I guess may have been that the music for this concert was excellent. From start to finish. The first half of the concert featured performances by the pianist and close friend of Lugi Nono, Maurizio Pollini. Before he even touched the keys Pollini appeared moved by the music, swaying in his seat a little before beginning, tension written across his face, with a rendition of Schoenberg's Three Pieces for Piano.

Pollini seemed completely at home with this music. He played without a score, flowing naturally through the brief pieces. He followed with Six little pieces for piano, a series of vignettes by Schoenberg that I had paid only passing attention to the before this evening. Pollini’s passion poured new life into the music, his playing charged by many years of living closely with it. The last of the six, a restful, almost Feldmanesque miniature written just after the death of Schoenberg’s close friend and inspiration Gustav Mahler was particularly resonant. Based around a single romantic chord and ending with deep booming chimes at the base of the piano’s register this tiny piece hung in the air as Pollini brought it to an end, almost collapsing across the keys as he did so.

Following the obligatory applause routines (classical musicians must stay really fit with all that walking on and off of the stage) Pollini was joined by the clarinet of Alain Damiens to play Alban Berg’s Four pieces for clarinet and piano. Berg’s chamber music has been a recent infatuation of mine, its simple lyrical beauty seems to balance the romantic richness of Mahler with the relentlessly investigative spirit of his teacher Schoenberg. I was not familiar with these brief pieces before hearing them played live though, but this first impression was very favourable, the music seemed quite minimal in comparison with other Berg compositions of that time I am more familiar with, suggestively melodic yet actually only revealing small parts of a tune here and there. The spirit of Schoenberg shone through the most though, this piece followed on from the night’s earlier piano pieces seamlessly.

Pollini brought his contribution to the evening to a close with a rendition of the piece that Nono wrote with his assistance back in 1977, the curiously titled …sofferte onde serene… The nearest translation appears to be something like …serene waves suffering… which could suggest a link to Nono’s home of Venice, a city that left a considerable imprint on the composer’s work.

The composition is incredibly complicated and places great demands on the pianist. It is the first work that Nono wrote that pitched a live musician against a tape of his same instrument. Nono recorded Pollini back in ’77 and this performance saw the pianist effectively duetting with his younger self as the piece requires the musician to weave beautiful yet complex figures around the mirror image of the piano projected live from the tape, engineered here by Nono collaborator and expert sound engineer André Richard. (although ironically the original tape part now exists as a Logic software file running on a laptop…)

…sofferte is a beautiful work that plays with the naturally soft sound of the piano and uses the tape to reflect a gimmering shadow of the music into the hall for Pollini to play the brighter, more immediate live notes over the top. Despite his involvement in the composition of the fourteen minute piece and his subsequent multiple performances of it over the ensuing years Pollini sat closely following the written score here, testament to both the work’s complexity and the pianist’s desire to remain faithful to the score when it could be easy to wander off behind the tape projection.

I had watched a film of Pollini playing this work as a bonus feature at the end of the excellent DVD documentary about the friendship between Nono, Pollini and the conductor Claudio Abbado called A Trail on the Water. On recordings it is difficult to tell the live and tape channels apart but witnessing the mass of notes merging together live in the hall it was easy to tell the difference, and this slight contrast between the notes added a sense of density to the performance I hadn’t felt before. Fantastic music.

At the interval I wandered off outside and grabbed a quick coffee whilst leaning out over the Thames, lit by the lights of the City across the water. As I watched the multitude of lights flickering with their blurred reflection below, the music of …sofferte… was still with me. One of those nice little moments.

The second half of this first concert of the evening was equally inspiring, yet you couldn’t have portayed a more contrasting picture of Nono’s music to that from the first half if you tried. Before the main closing piece of the evening we were treated to a short song for solo soprano sung by Barbara Hannigan. The piece, entitled Djamila Boupacha comes fromNono’s 1962 Songs of life and love and tells the harrowing tale of Boupacha, an Algerian freedom fighter who was subjected to a terrible rape.

Despite not having a translation to hand on the evening the fraught emotional intensity of the song came through very clearly. In places the singing became almost wordless, Hannigan’s wrenching cries leaving the audience in stunned silence. This was about as pure an evocation of the trauma of mankind’s insanity as I’ve ever witnessed in a musical setting.

Hannigan returned to the stage as part of a larger group to perform Nono’s rarely heard work A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida (The Forest is Young and Full of Life) She was joined by a trio of vocalists, two female, one male whose part consisted more of chant than singing, Damien’s clarinet the Cologne Percussion Quartet, who stood behind impressive looking suspended sheets of metal which they attacked on cue with metal prongs and chains, and considerable tape (laptop) recordings overseen by Richard. The ensemble was conducted by the composer and Klangforum Wien founder Beat Furrer.

A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida was written by Nono in 1966 at the height of his overtly political period. The chants, that are captured on tape but also called live from the stage are selected from what Nono called “moments from the anti-imperialist struggle.” The words of Castro, Vietnamese fighters (the piece is dedicated to the Vietnamese National Liberation Front) and Italian factory workers are massed into a swarm of urgent, forceful voices, with Hannigan’s soprano and Damien’s clarinet used to layer continual tones that build the momentum and adrenalin up in the music.
At the music’s most powerful moments the percussionists attack the metal sheets with precisely coordinated strikes and abrasive rattles of the chains. The composition rose to these peaks of aggression and power several times, on each occasion the sheer anger of the music reflecting the fire of the chanted words.

Whilst projecting a firm and powerful political message with this extraordinary piece, Nono also understood how tiny and ineffective his contribution to the fight could be. Some of the clearest, most resounding chants come near the end of the piece, when the words of an American student protester calling “Is this all we can do?” turn the piece back on itself, questioning how much of an impact that art can really have on the injustices of the world.

This performance was mentally bruising as it was sonically appealing. The combination of tape, distressed metal and swarming voices gelled together into a gripping tumult of writhing sound that I found captivating and invigorating.
In the past I have said that I often dislike the overt application of politics to music simply because it has rarely resulted in music that I have found very enjoyable to listen to. My feelings on this subject have changed considerably since working my way through Nono’s output this last couple of years. One thing is for sure, this powerful, engaging music could not exist without its subject matter and driving force.

A while later at the same venue, after the hall had been emptied and refilled again with a new audience about half the size we were treated to a late evening performance of Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura for solo violin on tape and live solo violin, performed here by Irvine Arditti. In many ways La lontananza is similar to …sofferte… in that it investigates the possibilities of a musician performing alongside a recorded part. Nono worked with Gidon Kremer to make the original tapes who was the original performer of the piece that was again dedicated to him. However Irvine Arditti was later to work closely with Nono and recorded a wonderful version of the piece in 1991, just after the composer’s death.

La lontananza was the first Nono composition I heard, through a different version again made by Clemens Merkel for the Wandelweiser label. I enjoyed the piece so much that I ended up purchasing four or five different versions before going on to discover Nono’s wider body of work. Therefore this piece of music holds a special place for me, and hearing it performed live by someone as gifted as Arditti was always going to be a special moment.

Arditti used the size of the hall to its full potential, having set up six different music stands complete with score at various places in the hall, both on stage and off, in front of, deep amongst and way up behind the audience. As the tape of Kremer then played (André Richard again took control of “sound projection”) Arditti slowly moved from music stand to music stand, playing softly but assuredly. It was always just about possible to tell the recorded violin apart from the live playing, Kremer’s sound being slightly granier than Arditti’s deft touches, but on occasion, particularly when Arditti stood high up at the back of the elevated audience area and his actions couldn’t be seen, the two sets of sound became hard to tell apart.

The music of La lontananza is soft, slow and like Fragmente – Stille utilises silence as a fundamental part of the composition to separate small sections of violin, some on tape, others live, and often a combination of the two. Arditti and Richard made the most of the space in the music by extending it into three dimensions, using the vast hall as a compositional element. The playing was superb, Arditti’s longstanding involvement with the music abundantly clear. The fragile, lonely violin wove its way around the fragments of sound and folded into the tape parts with incredible poignancy, demanding complete silence from the appreciative audience.

I found this performance wonderful, rounding up an evening of inspirational music in superb fashion. These three concerts portrayed the range of Nono's composition very well, the juxtaposition of the later quieter work with the politically charged passion of his late sixties composition was both jarring and illuminating at the same time. Adding the work of Nono's influences in the Vienna school gave depth and context to the performances, as well as great enjoyment of the pieces themselves. The Nono season at the South Bank concludes next May with two performances of his final masterpiece Prometeo. I've pushed my dislike for the South Bank Centre to the back of my head for now as my ticket for this show sits proudly in my desk drawer and I’m counting down the weeks.

The two low-grade photos were taken with my camera phone. The first is a glimpse of the score to La Lontananza, the second taken during my moment looking across the Thames. I need a better quality camera phone...

Monday, October 29, 2007

How to bin trends and alienate people

Years back when my youngest brother Neil lived here and I played music a lot louder than I do today, he perfected a good vocal impression of the 90’s improv that poured out of my room. His high speed, jerky, staccato approximation managed to sum up the music really well in a few seconds.

Back then it used to annoy me slightly that Neil, without trying too hard was able to recognise enough common traits in the music of SME, Bailey etc, to be able to distil them into one brief lo-fi comedy soundbite. It meant that much of this music that I considered to be so free from rules and formulas actually sounded the same to an outsider.

Its probably inevitable that any area of music that establishes itself over a period of time will begin to develop its own definable characteristics. When the first inklings of what has become known as EAI began to develop it sounded fresh against the backdrop of the improvised music that had preceded it. This new strand of improvisation continues to evolve and develop, branching off into several new directions over recent years, but at the same time there has formed a widely perceived idea of common characteristics, sounds and structures that inhabit the music’s middleground. It wouldn’t surprise me that if Neil was living here today he wouldn’t have too much of a problem impersonating EAI as he had done before with other music.

I should be clear at this point that at its fringes the music continues to explore new territory, and at its heart if familiar properties have developed in the music then they are characteristics I like a lot. As the music has gotten older it has increased in quantity and the cream of the music has improved a great deal in quality.

The inevitable bi-product of the development of settled forms of playing in an avant garde area though is the emergence of music that either completely ignores the established mannerisms or addresses them directly as part of the music. Maybe its just become a subconscious preoccupation of mine, but I’ve listened to a number of CDs over the last twelve months or so that seem to attempt the latter. Something I have come to question is whether there is any link between them.

One name behind a good number of these releases is Radu Malfatti. His bleak, featureless composition based more on the ticking of a stopwatch than the passion and immediacy of improvisation came as a response to the “talkative” qualities of contemporary music. The twelve CDRs Malfatti released on his B-boim label challenged the listener to maintain their attention by removing many of the common elements of music, such as progression, event etc. This resulted in music that forced the listener to think differently about what they expected from a CD. Long, grey, featureless sounds stopped and started abruptly, nothing faded in or out. Seemingly overlong silences sat between them leading the listener to wonder if they were hearing the same sound over and over or were there subtle changes. The music then became a test of memory as much as it was an enjoyable listen.

Despite appearing on three or four CDs that have proved to be important to the development of EAI (Polwechsel 1, Beinhaltung and Futatsu spring to mind) Malfatti has never really been considered to be part of any EAI “scene”, and his composition of recent years has come as a response to the traditional formulas of all music, not just one small section. His impact on a younger generation of musicians though is evident. Mattin, Taku Unami and Taku Sugimoto are three musicians that have all worked quite a bit with Malfatti that have in recent years made music that challenges the listener’s perception of how their music should sound. I wrote a while back here about Mattin and Unami’s 5 Modules III collaboration with Korean musicians Ryu Hankil and Jin Sangtae, a confusing, awkward disc that utilises deliberately ugly sounds combined with sharp changes in volume and abrupt shifts in dynamic. With that recording its as if the primary focus of the music is to remain one step away from any kind of listener comfort, but not via the extreme volumes that Mattin has worked with before. With 5 Modules III Unami has reassembled the music made by the quartet in such a manner that the CD rejects any kind of flow. Many of the characteristics we have come to expect from EAI are subverted, sounds appear out of nowhere before the music is ready for them, either disappearing abruptly or outstaying their welcome. The last third of the CD sounds nothing like the first, using sounds that jar our conditioned sensibilities of what should be heard on a CD. This all keeps the listener from settling into the music at all, and instead keeps prodding them, asking for extra attention.

Taku Unami has since released two solo discs. The first, the soundtrack to Ichimannen, go… a film by Isao Okishima goes even further again, mixing short blasts of static with extended silences, more unfashionable synth sounds and a series of field recordings that veer wildly between obscure Eastern marching music to an Albinoni piece for violin and ghostly Christmas Carol-like singing. Once again as listeners we are left confused, this time by the combination of the abstract and the semi-familiar placed together with seemingly no obvious connection.

On the Soundtrack disc it is unclear how much the construction of the piece is due to the music complimenting the film. This certainly wouldn’t be the first film soundtrack to sound extremely odd once separated from the associated images. The other recent Unami release though, the three part composition Malignitat on the Skiti label also seems to utilise this concept of sounds transposed from their more familiar habitat but then uses them in a manner we are less familiar with.

The first piece on the album, lasting like its two companions exactly fifteen minutes appears to be a composed piece realised on a computer. The form and structure of Malignitat I is somewhat austere, made up of two samples, played at differing pitches, one an extended sound, the other very brief. The short samples are scattered throughout the piece acting as tiny moments of counterpoint to the extended bursts, but with lengthy silences remaining present in the music, broken up here and there by false starting samples jabbing into the space as if triggered by accident.

The composition in itself is interesting enough. It could be seen as a natural continuation of Malfatti’s work, though the addition of the second, shorter bursts of sound bring considerably more complication to the music than Malfatti usually settles upon. Where this music takes a conceptual leap away from anything we have heard recently however is through the content of the samples themselves. Where we might expect a droning cello, a sinewave or a passage of digital static the extended sounds on Malignitat I are sourced from a single sample of a helicopter. Although slowed down here and there the sample is always obviously a helicopter, it isn’t disguised or used ironically. The first “instrument” on the disc is simply a sample of a helicopter.

The other sound we hear often is an electronic “blooping” sound that wouldn’t sound out of place in a 1980’s video arcade game. These short Pong-like jabs seem almost randomly sprayed into the spaces at the beginning and end of the helicopter samples, and occasionally randomly into the long silences, but above all they sound alien and somewhat unmusical. The samples are also stopped and started abruptly. The helicopter suddenly bursts into the silence and is then cut off brutally every time. There are no subtle fades to bring polish to the music. In fact if the music can be summed up in one sentence it could be that it perseveres to avoid the subtleties, expectations and craftsmanship of much contemporary new music.

Malignitat I is in itself an invigorating composition, but it is the use of the non-musical sounds that add a further dimension to the music. I find myself asking the question “would I feel differently about this music if the helicopter part was taken by a sinewave and the Pong sounds a guitar?” Unami seems to ask a very simple question with Malignitat I; Why are certain sounds considered musical and “acceptable” within an EAI setting and others not? Why are field recordings OK if they are blended into music but not when they are treated as an instrument themselves?

The second piece on the Malignitat disc utilizes the more familiar sound of Unami’s contra-guitar from the beginning. His playing is oddly stuttering, almost robotic at times, again sounding like the mechanics of the stopwatch lead the way over the human input we are used to hearing from a guitarist. For the most part Malignitat II is made up of entirely guitar parts, sometimes multitracked so that two sections layer over each other, but the listener is left continually alert because of the music that came earlier on the CD. Sure enough the helicopter suddenly reappears late in the piece, duetting this time with the stuttering guitar notes.

The final piece on the album takes just the helicopter sound and uses it at varied speeds, sometime sped right up to resemble something different, but again utilised in a rough stop-start manner and with no sense of progression throughout the music. The piece ends as if the tape had run out at the recording session, literally just stopping right on fifteen minutes. Perhaps we should expect nothing less by this point, but as the CD player stops spinning the disc I was left with a strange sense of “well what happens next?”

On several levels Malignitat seems to exist purely to play with the accepted ideas of how a piece of contemporary music should sound. I like this CD a lot, but its very hard to explain why. Its not something that could be described as beautiful, or even particularly nice to listen to. Its difficult to applaud any craftsmanship involved as I’m not certain that a large part of the composition isn’t completely random.

I like this music simply because it makes me think. It has already been criticized because it apparently ignores the listener, perhaps looking down upon them from arty heights. This is completely wide of the mark in my opinion. Without the direct involvement of the listener trying to decode Malignitat there is little here. Unami involves the listener centrally within this music. For me it exists as an awkward partnership between artist and audience, incomplete without the tension between them.

Malignitat will annoy those that are averse to anything conceptual and those that fear anything that challenges the sacred rules of improvisation. Unami and Mattin’s recent work has been dismissed as a second hand take on the Fluxus movement, but this comparison is also wide of the mark. This is not abstraction for the sake of it, rather a well thought through investigation of the form and structure of contemporary music and the listener’s response to its subversion.

Taku Sugimoto’s new album Doremilogy, not surprisingly also on the Skiti label captures three versions of a composed piece that proves to be as much of a musical enigma as Malignitat. This album furthers Sugimoto’s composed work of recent years into even more perplexing territory. As the title suggests the simplicity of the major scale lies at the heart of the composition, which is presented here in solo guitar form alongside two different versions for three multitracked guitars all played by Sugimoto.

The first of the three tracks begins with one continuous, twenty-one minute long sustained note obtained by holding an E-bow against a single string. The sound wavers slightly, reminding us that this music is being played live, but essentially all we get is one long held note. After twenty-one minutes Sugimoto suddenly brings the E-bow up through the strings to step the note up through the major scale. This last rising segment lasts just twenty seconds.

The second piece again plays with the simplicity of the rising scale, this time utilizing a more familiar Sugimoto technique of individual notes dropped into wide silences, though he does stop and run through most of the scale quite rapidly (by his standards!) at one point. The final piece returns to the extended E-bow notes, I think utilising the notes of the scale again, only slower and this time moving from high to low. Back in the summer I witnessed Sugimoto play this piece live as part of a septet and again it stood out amongst the programme of pieces played that evening as being somewhat simplistic and downright perplexing.

Aside from the resonance of using such a fundamental element of Western music to construct this composition, the music again sets out to challenge the listener’s perception of what to expect from modern composition. Even amongst a live programme that included typically austere compositions by Radu Malfatti and others Doremilogy stood out as awkwardly oblique.

As with the 5 Modules III release and Malignitat this CD seems to exist as much to make the listener stop and think about what forms music should arrive in as it does to present us with something to listen to. I find myself thinking of a couple of critical visual art works of the 20th Century in relation to these discs. Duchamp’s urinal is obviously a good marker, a work that shocked and upset its viewers as it asked questions about what art should consist of. As a sidenote Unami’s helicopter could be considered a “ready made” in the manner of Duchamp, unadorned, unaltered, merely placed in position for consideration by its audience. This isn’t quite true as the helicopter sounds are used as just one part of a carefully constructed work, but the similarities are food for thought.

Magritte’s Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) springs to mind for some reason also, not for its surrealist considerations, but more for the confusion caused when the listener gets something other than they expected when playing one of these CDs. This is composed, recorded and released music, but then it isn’t, or at least not as we are used to hearing it.

I also wrote recently here about Antoine Beuger’s Silent harmonies in discrete continuity, another CD that seems to address related concerns. Beuger is a member of the Wandelweiser collective, related again to Malfatti and also an influence on the two Takus.

One other disc that might connect to this (quite possibly non-existent) trend of anti-music is Sind the recent solo disc by Berlin trumpeter and EAI mainstay Axel Dörner. On the surface Sind does indeed seem to investigate similar ground to Malfatti’s compositions as many short tracks consisting of minimal material are placed together with occasional lengthy silences between them. Its more probable that Dörner’s approach developed completely independently of the other releases mentioned here, there is nothing to suggest that there is any direct connection to them.

There are many similarities however. Listening to Sind is a difficult experience. The fragments of sound vary quite a lot in their form but somehow all retain an ascetic feel, small blocks of industrial waste carefully positioned with assorted silences placed here and there between them. Sind is beautifully structured, the piece reminds me of walking through an abstract expressionist collection in a gallery, different colours and textures playing off each other in small episodic moments, some closer together than others.

Whilst Sind may not be as willfully disarming as some of the other releases I have mentioned here it does utilise a structure that departs from any familiar forms we might expect from an EAI release, suggesting that perhaps the need to force new ways of both making and listening to this music could become more widespread than just a few linked names.

To finish I should make it clear that I am not advocating this kind of approach to music composition above any other. I have here merely tried to draw lines around what appear to be vaguely related releases to try and understand any common links between them. I will say that I find this questioning, challenging approach to making music a very healthy thing for EAI in general. Whilst there is plenty of room for many strands of the music to co-exist this dramatically conceptual direction can only serve to pose questions to other musicians that can either be considered or ignored. That a number of individuals are prepared to challenge any sense of status quo can only be a good thing for the continued vitality of this area of music. I look forward to being further confused in the near future.

He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.

OK so its been a bit of a long hiatus, neary a month, but sometimes life gets in the way...

I began my new job on the 1st October and whilst I have enjoyed it immensely (first time I could say this about my dayjob in ten years) its been pretty tiring as my body has adjusted to 4.30AM waking times and my brain has had to cope with no end of new information.

Outside of preparing and presenting the new series of audition I've not actually listened to that much music. Well I have, but its tended to be a small number of releases over and over rather than a wide scope. This has meant that even when I've had the chance to write here I've found that I had little to say (some would argue there's no change there) so I've stayed quiet. Over the last week or so however I have been pondering a few thoughts and this post will be followed by one long, sprawling monolith of a post, unedited, thrown together from a lot of short notes written during coffee breaks at work and as a result probably completely incomprehensible. Oh well, at least there's something new up here anyway.

One musical event I did manage to attend last week was a performance by the Arditti String Quartet of Luigi Nono's string quartet Fragmente - Stille along with pieces by Webern and Schoenberg. The music was great, but as I am hopefully to attend a further Nono concert this Wednesday evening I will try and combine the two into one write up. expect it sometime just after Christmas :)


On a sidenote I've just noticed the visitor counter here has gone way beyond 10,000 hits since I installed it and daily visits continue to be average over 40 even though I've not written anything. Thanks to anyone that keeps an eye on the blog for anything new and sorry for keeping anyone waiting.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Photo of the Month No.7

View of a river taken from a bridge directly above. France, Summer 2007

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Even busier...

Apologies again for the lack of posts around here, been another busy week. Put a tick against all of the usual excuses, new job training courses, spending time with people close to me etc, but another big event that has taken up a lot of my time has been preparation for the start of the third series of audition, the Resonance FM radio programme I present with Alastair Wilson. Much of this week I worked on completely overhauling the audition website, which you can see here.
My skills with website design are all self taught, so I am really pleased with how it came out. As a piece of graphic design its horrible, but the main thing is it works, and is easy to update and maintain. It might just be another website lost out there on the web, but I'm really proud of it, so there!

Last Monday Alastair and I interviewed a musician for a future special show (more on this at a later date) and we have been to visit the new studios at Resonance, which look amazing, some leaps and bounds ahead of the ramshackle disaster zone of the previous studios. We have been feverishly working on ideas for future shows (well I have anyway, Al has been lazing about in Paris) and as you can read in more detail at the audition site, we go back on air on Sunday evening. I hope some of you will find the time to listen, if you can't then Mp3s of our programmes will go up at the site soon after.

Another big happening in my life starts on Monday, when I begin a new job with a new company. Its very much a step backwards for me (with the hope of shortly taking a big leap forward) but I will be working for a company I feel far more comfortable with and with (I hope) far less stress than I had previously. Obviously the trade off of this is I will earn less money for now, but I think its the right move, time will tell.

I'll get back to less autobiographic posting very soon I promise!