Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hidden Treasure

Takefumi Naoshima, Hirozumi Takeda, Utah Kawasaki, Mitsuteru Takeuchi, Toshihiro Koike, Takahiro Kawaguchi, Yasuo Totsuka - Septet

This CD is not a Wandelweiser release, and its character is actually quite unlike most Wandelweiser compositions, but on the slightly dodgy premise that the music on this disc is extremely quiet I thought I'd write about it amongst my Wandelweiser explorations. This is a new release on the Meena label, which is an offshoot of the Improvised Music from Japan imprint. I'm not really sure of the purpose of said offshoot, but that's neither here nor there. The typically beautiful sleeve includes notes from one of the musicians, Takefumi Naoshima, and also from Toshiya Tsunoda, from whom the following paragraph is excerpted:

"The question of audibility aside, the quietness of quiet sound is an unmistakable characteristic in and of itself. While playing music at very low volume has the effect of concentrating listeners' attention, this is surely a matter of degree. When sound is excessively quiet, it's hard to determine what one should be listening to--and the normal human reaction is not concentration, but irritation. The basis for evaluating sound volume (as in the case of the sound level meter) is the human being's sense of hearing. At the same time, the place and conditions in which sound is produced come into play as well. The dynamic range of our sense of hearing is related not only to the energy of the sound, but also to the structure of the eardrum. When a strong vibration shakes the eardrum, which is a very thin membrane, quiet sounds occurring at the same time are masked by this large wave and rendered inaudible--just as, when a stone is thrown into a big ocean wave, the ripples instantly disappear."

The music on this CD is very quiet. Very very quiet indeed. You need to turn the volume up just to hear anything at all. It was recorded at the Tanker studio in Tokyo with the input from the studio microphones turned up very high to capture the faint sounds made by the seven musicians, which consist mainly of little more than tiny clicks, whirrs and flutters. The list of 'instruments' involved is intriguing, ranging from the traditional, two guitars, a flute, and a trombone through to a mixing board, a compressor of some kind and Takehiro Kawaguchi's 'remodeled counters'. The musicians play very softly indeed. The effect of having the microphone gain so high is a continual hiss throughout the two tracks on the CD and every slight movement, rustle, deep breath or cleared throat from the musicians is amplified loudly and becomes part of the recorded matter, and according to the sleeve notes even external sounds from outside the studio space seep into the recording, though listening its hard to tell where any of the sounds are really coming

And that is just what makes this disc so interesting. The first track in particular contains very little that could be considered "musical" in any traditionally accepted meaning of the term, and so the intentional clicks and whispers merge with the unintentional rustles and scrapes, and it all reaches the eardrum of the listener as one collection of sounds, the difference between them unidentifiable. At one point a sound occurs that could eaily be one of the musician's stomach rumbling as much as it could be a contribution from an instrument. This merging of the deliberate and accidental is a very simple idea, yet one I really am not sure I've encountered before. For sure I have heard many discs of quiet, even near silent music that emphasises the musical qualities of external sounds creeping in, but never one where the muscians play so quietly that all of their actions could be mistaken for the ambient sounds of the room and consumed within them. Its as if they are trying to hide their sounds as a kind of musical camoflage. This first 47 minute track is of course not the most gripping of works if you are looking for an example of fluent interactive improvisation. Its highly doubtful that even the musicians were aware of which sounds made it into the recording and which did not. As a really interesting experiment and a document of the effect that this kind of recording can have on the listener (in contrast to Tsunoda's words I didn't find it irritating, quite the opposite) I really like this.

The second track, shorter at just under 20 minutes contains a lot more input from the musicians. A continual clockwork-like ticking noise features for the first half of the track (possibly the remodeled counters?) and a series of extended sounds actually make for quite a nice little improvised miniature. In a couple of places a very loud note appears (this happens once in the first piece as well, near the end, be warned if you're drinking a hot drink as it comes as a shock) and you have to reach for the volume control, only having to turn it right back up again straight after. This track works very nicely from a musical perspective. the background sounds and hisses are still there, very much so, but the musician's contributions are more distinct, and show a sensitivity and tension that the first track could never have portrayed. Its almost as if this piece is included as a reward to the determined listener that made it through the first track. That odd pink drink you get after the dentist has finished assaulting your mouth... (!)

If you buy the CD direct from the label you also receive an extra CDR recording of the septet playing live at Mitaka Arts Centre as long ago as November 2005. (The studio recordings date from November 2006) Again the music is very quiet indeed, and the CD is mastered very low, requiring a further turn of the volume dial to bring out what is there. Although quiet, the recording is very clear, consisting mainly of traffic sounds from outside the venue. The audience are either very few in number or impressively silent, and what we are presented with is a soft, gentle hum of the city with occasional pinprick moments of sound dropped in by the musicians. Personally I can listen to this kind of thing all day, but the intriguing experiments of the studio recordings are less impactful here, the microscopic alien soundworld replaced with a familiar ambience.
There is an obvious comparison to be made here with Taku Sugimoto's Live in Australia recordings, although with the solo guitar of Sugimoto's releases it is clear when the musician is responsible for a sound. Here, with such an obscure array of instrumentation involved (I am assuming the same items are used as on the main CD, though this isn't made clear) there is perhaps less tension, less personal engagement with the musician, and more intrigue. Was that sound Totsuka's 'compressor' or was it a passing bus?

Like the Wandelweiser releases I imagine this release will have far more detractors than supporters, but whilst it might sound quite different to any of the CDs on that label, Septet exists partially to ask similar questions of how we sit and listen to recorded music, and challenges our perceptions of what we should hear when we press Play. I may be in a minority but I like this.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Assumed possibilities

John Cage, Burkhard Schlothauer - For Seven Players

Well I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear that this recent Wandwelweiser release doesn't appear to be dedicated to, or heavily influenced by, any visual artists at all ;)
This CD features two compositions, the first being John Cage's Seven, written in 1988, and the second Burkhard Schlothauer's 2002 work 15 similar events - septet. Both compositions were recorded on the same occasion by Ulrich Krieger (clarinet) Normisa Pereira da Silva (alto flute), Burkhard Schlothauer (violin), Julia Eckhardt (viola), Marcus Kaiser (cello), Guy Vandromme (piano), and Tobias Liebezeit (percussion).

Its probably no surprise to learn that both compositions are played in a quiet, studied manner and that both exude a gentle and beautiful charm. There are clear links to be drawn between the New York School of thought from the 50's and the work of the Wandelweiser collective today. These two works compliment each other well, both concerned with the balance of indeterminacy and prescribed composition. Each composition presents the musicians with a set of timings and restrictions on what they can or cannot play during these timeframes.

I have not managed to hear any recorded versions of Seven, before this one. Like all of Cage's late 'numbers' pieces the title merely refers to the number of players, who are then presented with time brackets within which they must play a prescribed set of sounds in order. Mostly the musicians are given precise pitches to play, (their selection made by Cage using chance operations) their freedom being where in a particular timeframe they place them (though always in order). The three stringed instruments are mainly instructed to play col legno, (with the wooden reverse of the bow rather than, or possibly with, the hair) and single sustained notes are most common from those instruments able to produce them. By composing in this manner Cage kept a reasonable control over the likely outcome of the music, with particular sounds and some of their textures defined, but enough uncertainty remains, to be resolved by the individual musician's choices and sensibilities.

So how does it sound? Well very nice indeed. The music has a restful calm about it, not falling into complete silence very often, but moving at a slow pace and with a softness not untypical of a Wandelweiser release. The events unfold steadily with elongated notes overlapping, punctuated by individual piano notes mainly formed from separate keys played simultaneously. With Seven Cage mainly replaces choice with chance, prescribing the vast majority of the musician's sounds, but arranging their realisation in such a way that those sounds come together differently with each performance. The sensitivity of the musicians remains a key factor however and all of these elements conbine here to produce a quietly beautiful work.

Schlothauer's piece is composed using a similar degree of freedom for the musicians, but without the use of chance operations to decide on pitches and timings. The seven musicians are given a list of five sounds that they should play within fifteen time brackets. Of the five sounds each musician chooses to use one of them five times, another four times, another three times and so on, thus allowing the musicians to decide to some degree which sounds will be heard more often. A complicated system of timings and instructions regarding who may play when causes the music to form into fifteen short clusters, with long periods of sound between them.

Again, the music is brought to life with great poise and the result is a work of real beauty. A much more sparse, empty performance results from Schlothauer's piece than did with the Cage. The two works sound different to each other, the blank space written into the more recent composition adding a sense of tension to the music, though it also lacks some of the progression formed throughout the music of the Cage piece.

So what is the role of the musicians in this music? They have a limited opportunity to shape how the music may sound in each of the compositions. yet are restricted the freedom of an all out improvisation. They are still given much more of a role in the music than a fully notated work however. Whereas the performers of a traditionally notated composition are able to impact a performance through their passion and emotional presence in the music, here the players are allowed a little further into the creative process, playing music that is distinctly the composer's, (or defined by the composer through the use of chance) yet allows a more social development to refine its form. In his sleeve notes Schlothauer draws an analogy with 21st century life in a time of great change; having lost certainties, should issues of probability and possibility now be addressed? Whilst it could be argued that Cage was investigating these areas decades ago there is still plenty of scope for interesting music in this area, as this lovely CD proves.

Why?

Is it that no matter how what music you've been playing, no matter what books you've been reading, films you've been watching or concerts you've been at, it all pales into comparison compared with an hour in the company of Rothko's Seagram paintings?

Local delicacies

Well it was nice to get out in the sun yesterday afternoon and wander slowly over to Oxford for the gig I mentioned in my last post. It was so nice to just pop down the road for a concert. Its been years since I attended an Oxford show, a mixture of laziness and over-pickiness on my behalf has kept me away really. I keep promising myself I'll do this more often. I won't go into detail on all four of the sets. Suffice to say that a couple of them weren't really my cup of tea, Divine Coils are a local, very young duo I'd not come across before who showed promise, crouched on the floor with a mixture of electronics and acoustic instrumentation, metal prayer bowls, violin etc. The soundworld they worked in was nice, but their use of the sounds was youthfully naive, just far too much going on, and it sounded like most of it going on just for the sake of it. Give them a year or two however and they could be really worth listening to.
The headline act For Barry Ray weren't really my thing either. Thats not to say they didn't do what they do very well, John Chantler's use of sampling and looping the live performance was masterful, but the music drifted between an ambient, folky wash and droning loops, all quite tastefully done but really not that interesting. The best part of the set for me was Benjamin, a youngster in the audience (around 3 or 4 years old I'd say) that spent the set tumbling around the audience that were mostly sat on the floor, singing and dancing along to the music and not really caring whose lap he fell headfirst into, at one point picking up a spare (fortunately not plugged in) microphone to join in.

The first performance I enjoyed was a brief solo set that opened the evening by Beautiful Screaming Lady, the solo project of Traw's Simon Proffitt. I can happilly report that at no point did Simon scream anything, he isn't a lady and he most certainly isn't beautiful. ;) Simon used what I think was some kind of oscillator to push tones through an upturned speaker cone containing ping pong balls and other detritus to make a short, pleasant soundtrack to a hot summers afternoon that didn't overstay its welcome and tuned the ears for the afternoon's music. Using speaker cones in this manner is not unusual these days, and as Simon played it amused me to think that somewhere out there there's a graveyard of empty speaker cabinets, their insides mercillessly removed by determined experimental musicians ;)

The main reason i came to the gig was to see the Traw trio play in a quartet with Oxford double bassist Dom Lash. For those not aware Traw are laptop trio originating from Cardiff but now spread all over the place that still manage to play together a few times a year despite one of their number now living in Paris. Lash had never before played with Traw, and as the set began this was clear, as the first five minutes or so saw the musicians tentatively seek common ground. An opening made up of an almost featureless ambience from the laptoppers made it hard for Lash to find a way in, settling for textural scrapes over the electronic backdrop, but soon after things opened up nicely. One or more of the Traw players began to use samples of Lash's own playing taken from his myspace site, something he wasn't expecting but this pulled him into the performance, and the last twenty minutes or so was very nice indeed. Dom is a highly skilled improvisor, splitting his time between playing in more traditional improv settings and more recently in more "EAI" settings, bringing a sensitivity and responsive ear to the music. Here his touch was sublime, despite him being troubled by a painful back injury, blending a series of dry textures and softly bowed grainy notes into the swirling collage of sounds springing from the laptops, but also not afraid to add the odd jarring sound as counterpoint to the electronics. Highly enjoyable.

Dom Lash's forthcoming gigs list is impressively long, but one concert certainly catches my eye on November 15th in London, a "double concerto" performance with Mark Wastell (also on bass) and a laptop ensemble (hopefully) made up of Phil Durrant, Ben Drew, Matt Davis, Louisa Martin and David Toop, a reprise of a similar concert Wastell played with Rhodri Davies' acoustic harp and a similar laptop group a few years back. One not to be missed methinks.

---

Arriving in Oxford early I spent a while getting annoyed at Oxford record shops, and then calmed myself down by buying a copy of Elizabeth Wilson's hefty bio of Shostakovich; A Life Remembered which I began reading last night having now finished T.J Clark's splendid The Sight of Death, a book I really enjoyed, and the impact of which will become clear over time.
I also came home with a CDR from Simon "Beautiful Screaming Lady" Proffitt which I couldn't resist as it came packaged in a large somewhat cumbersome (about six inches square, and an inch thick) bright red plastic box that apparently once housed DVD glass masters, but somehow resembles something created from Lego more than anything else. Not played it yet as the 'To Listen To' pile here has suddenly become quite tall again, but I'll get to it soon.

Off to London this afternoon I think to have a potter around the Tate Modern (just for a change). More Wandelweiser splutterings later this evening all being well.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Some blatant plugs

A short post inbetween Wandelweiser musings to plug a few things by friends more than anything...!

I spent the afternoon at Sound323 today, and as new releases of interest seem few and far between I spent some time playing a few items fromt he second hand racks, mainly contemporary classical albums, and bought a good few discs that have so far been quite enjoyable this evening, one cut-price disc of solo cello pieces played by Taco Kooistra (previously unknown to me) is OK in general, but contains one little gem, a realisation of Helmut Lachenmann's Pression a piece of music I enjoy a great deal and this is a very nice performance. More about the other purchases in forthcoming posts I imagine.

So a couple of plugs; Simon Reynell is a nice guy with a long history as a fan of good music and has now launched a great looking label, Another Timbre with five (yes five) releases arriving in October. His catalogue can be found here. Some really promising releases there, and I've heard of some more intriguing projects planned. The Angharad Davies / Tisha Mukarji album is one I am particularly salivating over. Great to see another new English label starting up.

The other plug is probably a bit late now as its for a gig tomorrow (Sunday 26th) just down the road from here in Oxford at the Port Mahon pub at 5pm. I'm particularly interested in hearing everyone's favourite Welsh laptop trio Traw play with Oxford's double bass hero Dom Lash in a quartet, alongside the For Barry Ray duo of John Chantler and Carina Thoren amongst other acts. I know the chances of anyone living close enough reading this in the next few hours is pretty unlikely, but if you make it come and say hi, I'll be the old git sat wondering what hypno-improv dronesmithery is ;)

Friday, August 24, 2007

A monochrome set

silence is not an acoustic phenomenon

there is silence, where depth disappears and expanse emerges:
on the surface

still waters are said to run deep,
but in reality it is the imperturbability of their surface that impresses us.

and a quiet person's silence hides nothing deep-
it hides nothing at all.




Antoine Beuger - Silent harmonies in discrete continuity

So to the most recent release from another of the Wandelweiser Collective's main names, Antoine Beuger. Composed and realised on a computer in 2002, Silent Harmonies in discrete continuity was released earlier this year. The music consists of twenty-four three minute "tracks" although it is clear to me that they are meant to be played in succession as one long piece. The only reason I can imagine for the separate track idents could be to play the music in shuffle mode, though this is not suggested anywhere amongst the minimal sleeve notes. The above short poetic words above do appear however, providing a thoughtful, if oblique reference to Beuger's thought processes in writing this music.

The music is in itself some of the most sparse, austere music I think I have ever heard. The twenty-four pieces each consist of one pure tone created by combining eight frequencies, one from each octave. The tones are consistent throughout their three minutes, fading slowly in and out of their allotted time frame, each containing a depth and a warmth individual to themselves, but essentially this is twenty-four three minute long tones spaced apart.

So what are we supposed to do with this music? Is there some hidden code? How are you meant to enjoy it? Is it meant to be enjoyed?

Beuger adds a note on the sleeve about the composition; "one sound goes, another one comes and so it goes, step by step, continuously" This in itself may not seem to help much, but then he also dedicates the piece to the American painter Marcia Hafif, famous mostly for her monochrome works. I read this dedication halfway through Silent harmonies... and at that point I brought the CD player back to the start and began to listen again. Each of the twenty-four tones is quite lovely in itself. Turning your head as they fill the room reveals the individual frequencies within. One moment when I yawned (no comment on the music!) revealed a completely different sound to the one I heard a moment before. So each of the tones could be seen as a colourfield, with the detail within resembling the brushstrokes used to create the work. Placing these pure tones / pure colours beside each other then causes simple juxtapositions akin to wandering through a gallery of Hafif's works (not something I have done but looking at photos its not so hard to imagine) I return to some of the ideas I considered about Radu Malfatti's works in previous writing, can we remember the sound that preceeded the one we are currently hearing? If so can we remember the one before that? Is there a natural progression? Have any of the sounds reoccurred?

Listening to this music is an experience not that dissimilar to standing before a room full of Barnett Newman paintings (something I have done) or maybe Callum Innes, or Rauschenberg's monochromes. How do you respond to this music / painting? Careful study will show changes in light and shadow over time, just as experiencing this music at different times will bring different background sounds. Studying those paintings up close will show the manner in which they were made. Stepping back and taking in an overview will reveal an overall mood, an atmosphere in the room that seeps into the people pasisng through it. I hear this music in a similar way.

The biggest mistake I think you can make in approaching Silent harmonies in discrete continuity is to treat it as just another piece of music and expect it to reward you in a similar manner. i don't think this will happen. I may have read the music entirely incorrectly (and I am sending these reviews to the composers concerned to try and find out) but for me this music works on a very basic, functional level, asking the listener to accept it for exactly what it is, leaving it up to them to find their own individual response to what they hear.

Clearly not for everyone, but I've found this CD intriguing and somehow rather inspirational.

Images are of Marcia Hafif's work.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A thousand colours, all of them grey

I've written a little here before about my interest in the music of the Wandelweiser label, and as I've played a few of the recent releases over the last few days I thought I'd write a little about some of the more recent releases I've managed to pick up. I rarely see reviews of Wandelweiser discs anywhere so over the next couple of weeks I aim to do my little bit to help put that right. Here's a great one to start with;

Jürg Frey - String Quartets

Listening to this music today has come almost as a shock to the system after my recent obsession with Shostakovich and Mahler. In the brief sleeve notes to this disc Frey mentions how he was influenced by the painting of Agnes Martin whilst writing his first String Quartet in 1988, which appears here as one of four works recorded by the Bozzini Quartet in 2004. Frey draws a parallel between his music and Martin's minimal paintings: "clear-cut forms not overgrown with rhetoric and figuration. Instead sensuality, radiance and intensity gripped the entire space"
At first, after the rich, in-your-face emotions of Shostakovich and Mahler this paired back minimal music is hard to come to terms with, but very soon its immense beauty grabs me, almost halting me in my tracks and bringing everything I do down to a slow, quiet pace. That may seem a dramatic statement to make, but when the CD began I was putting away a pile of clean washing, and after a few minutes the clothes were left in a heap in front of the open wardrobe and I sat quietly listening.

Its hard not to mention a similarity with Feldman's second quartet when considering the first Frey SQ on this disc. The simple structure of the music consists of repeated two note passages that change every thirty seconds or so, mostly bowed softly, with some plucked strings appearing later in the piece. There are subtle changes in the notes played. A cursory listen may suggest the same notes played in a basic pattern over and over, but there is a gentle shift throughout. Here the similarity with Martin's painting is clear to me, an apparent simplicity containing a deeper intensity and detail revealed slowly over time in a manner not unlike the work of Morton Feldman. The composition has a distinct Feldmanesque feel to it, a sense of gradual movement across the music rather than any more obvious progression. The piece is played slightly quicker than you may expect from Feldman however, and lasts just short of eleven minutes, resulting in a beautiful miniature that I rather wish went on for longer.

The second piece on the disc is named (Unbetitelt) VI (I suspect this translates as Untitled, but Babelfish won't confirm as such) Written between 1990 and '91 the music inhabits similar ground, here utilising slowly rising musical figures slowly played in a clean, simple fashion, but again creating the feeling of gradually shifting movement as the ninteen minute piece progresses. Often we only hear a single instrument, and each note is separated cleanly from the next, sometimes with a momentary silence. Only late in the piece does a passage appear where a high note is held for an extended period as other instruments continue below, but there is a real clarity to this music that is maintained throughout. There are a couple of surprises here and there, just before the midway point a violin picks out a few lines of almost inaudibly high sound, yet these frail whispers fit perfectly into the music.

The third and fourth tracks on the CD make up the two parts of a very short work entitled Zwei allerletze Såchelchen (No idea again beyond the "two" at the start, help me out German readers! Tomas?!) The first of the two pieces, Mailied (May song?) is just 47 seconds long. As brief as it is the piece is songlike in its existence, consisting of twenty or so high pitched notes softly overlapping each other in a brief moment of beauty that slips away as fast as it arrived. The second half of the work is half as short again at just 21 seconds. Vorbei, (Past) resembles the opening to a more traditionally notated quartet, Shostakovich naturally comes to my mind, but the tiny piece just ends after ten or eleven elegantly arranged notes, a tiny glimpse of something very beautiful, but the listener is left wondering. Zwei allerletze Såchelchen was written at the same time as (Unbetitelt) VI, in 1990. I cannot help but draw more parallels with Feldman's experiments with the length of a piece of music, with Frey here distilling great beauty into a tiny opening in time, whilst Feldman's later works stretched themselves over several hours. Both approaches challenge our established listening conventions. With these brief pieces how is the listener meant to respond? My natural reaction has been to hit the "<" button on the CD player and play each of the pieces over and over, but was this the intended response? Does it matter?

The final piece on the disc is simply entitled String Quartet II and was written the best part of a decade later between 1998 and 2000. At nearly half an hour in length this piece is the longest on the disc, and addresses very different concerns to the earlier works. Here Frey uses extended techniques to create a very quiet, soft, almost noteless grey soundworld within which brief passages of bowed sound exist for two or three seconds, each interspersed with a second or two of silence, but again with the sounds used gradually shifting across time. This is hauntingly beautiful music. The playing resembles an ethereal vocal ensemble more than it does a string quartet. The opening to Ligeti's Lux Aeterna springs to mind, but even that isn't so close. You can certainly forget the Feldman comparisons here, this music takes a further step into inaudibility and a leap away from the musicality of the ealier pieces. For me this music moves closer to the Agnes Martin paintings, utilising the faintest of sounds, whispers of immense beauty, changing with every movement of the bow yet structured in a manner that careful listening reveals the natural rhythms of the piece.

One of the most common criticisms made of the Wandelweiser collective of composers is that the music they create lacks humanity, existing as a sterile exercise in mannered austerity. This may be true of some of the work, but this album in particular is achingly beautiful and is dripping with the intensity and sensuality created by a group of musicians playing difficult music with great passion. This music, and the final piece in particular has a cumulative effect on the listener, slowing the senses, heightening the attention, filling the space with the radiance Frey finds surrounding Martin's painting.

I think you can tell I really liked this release ;)

Untitled painting by Agnes Martin

"Wisdom is organised life"

Well as I have been sat about waiting for news on the employment front, and as it hasn't stopped raining again in days I figured it was about time I sorted out my office / listening space at Pinnell Towers. A good clean up, clear out and reorganisation has been badly needed for a long time, and so over the last couple of days it finally happened. Seven full refuse bags of junk went out, (mainly remnants of my last job, so nice to clear it out of my life) and a few hundred CDs that I haven't listened to in years were boxed up and moved into one of the spare rooms here, joining other similar boxes from past clear outs.

It always feels great to do this, kind of a purge of my musical interests as much a belated spring clean of the room. Its interesting that whilst going through old CDs you manage (or at least I do anyway) to find discs that you have absolutely no recollection of owning before, and other long forgotten articles suddenly feel like they need to be played. I somehow managed to relocate the stereo (just out of shot in that photo unfortunately) without ever switching it off, so as these CDs leapt out at me demanding to be played in a last gasp attempt to save themselves from being boxed up, I had an ongoing soundtrack to the process.

Amongst the semi-forgotten items I played was the Revenant compilation from a few years back of old 78rpm records by The Stanley Brothers, old-time bluegrass music from the forties and early fifties. Played loud yesterday morning as the wind and rain whipped against the window this sounded good. I have several of the early Revenant compilations of early American music, and with the majority of them I tend to find the music refreshing to hear every now and again, almost cleansing the aural pallete, but this isn't music I can listen to for long, repeated listens tend to annoy me after a while.

Another CD I unearthed that had somehow escaped my main collection by accident was a recording of Feldman's Triadic Memories by Jean-Luc Fafchamps on the Sub Rosa label. Finding this was like receiving a new Feldman disc in the post, as I had no memory of what it sounded like, as it was probaby one of the first Feldman CDs I bought. Listening through though I found it quite disappointing, the piano sounding very bright and closely recorded and the playing a little stiff, lacking the richness and flow of the Tilbury or Hinterhåuser versions I own.

I also played a CD that I often seem to discover whilst tidying up the shelves and I can never resist playing as it always seems to make me smile. Jim O'Rourke's Halfway to a Threeway EP is the disc in question, and the title track in particular, a tale of one man's search in vain for a ménage à trois. I was never a big fan of O'Rourke's later song-based material. Whilst his arrangements and musicianship were quite beautiful his voice was so terrible it rendered most of the material unlistenable, so I have always preferred his work with other vocalists, Edith Frost's Calling over time a real favourite. Halfway to a Threeway though is just hilarious, a few minutes of silly dark humour, but it always tickles me.

A good sort-out like this is always good for the spirits, and today I set about clearing out my iMac hard drive of old audio recordings and ensuring my iTunes files are all nicely labelled. A little sad I know, but this kind of thing is addictive to me, and the sense of a job-well-done at the end is a nice one.

Interesting things to spot in that picture; (click on it for an enlarged view) a well worn early edition of Cardew's Treatise poking out from the shelf in the foreground, a Professor Yaffle figurine sat atop the rarely used Windows PC Monitor, (Professor Yaffle is a longtime mentor of mine) and the small silver UFO flying just above his head. Bored? Me? Never!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

On reflection...

Well over the last week I didn't get to listen to much music, a combination of employment assessment centres and spending some quality time with my better half kept me busy. This morning however I had some quiet time to myself, but instead of putting something into the CD player I sat and watched Andrej Tarkovsky's Mirror, a DVD I have owned for a couple of months now, but for some reason just haven't had the inclination to sit and watch.
I've written here before about the difficulty I have with sitting and watching films in this way. I've spent many years avoiding the act of sitting in front of a TV for long periods of time, but the recent few attempts I've made to sit and watch a few films I've been recommended have been enjoyable.

Mirror is beautifully constructed. To me, after just the one viewing it seems to be a collage of childhood memories and emotions intricately wound together to paint an overall picture that allows an understanding of how Tarkovsky felt as a child (the film is in a large part autobiographical) rather than tell a story with any beginning or end. Characters aren't fully defined for a long time and remain slightly distant, their secrets held back rather than explained, leaving you with their surface emotions and the occasional hint at something deeper. The film is put together wonderfully. Each short scene is beautifully filmed in itself, with recurring metaphorical motifs and faces appearing at different stages, with movements back and forth in time blurred by the reappearance of familiar moments. The film acts as a mirror on itself, the past reflecting the future, and vice versa, until the temporal structure of the film dissolves and we are left with just a sense of emotion, nostalgia, regret and lost vitality that as a viewer we can all understand. The screen showing the film becomes a mirror in itself. There's no way I can come close to understanding this film after just one viewing, and it may be some time before I see it again, but it left me in a state of melancholic contemplation as it ended, projecting onto me some sort of blanket of overall feeling and mood.

Beside this sense of reflective atmosphere the film is technically and visually very beautiful indeed. The movement between one scene and the next is often stunning, ranging from slow panoramic swings of the camera to precise cuts between places and times, often with some visual elements remaining from scene to scene. Tarkovsky uses several repeated devices nicely, rain falling at a window appears often, and one dreamlike sequence where the ceiling of a house falls around the lead female character echoes the rainfall. Mirrors and reflected images obviously occur often, and a small bird, captured in the hand at one point in the film is later released, and in late sequences in the film birds flying free may or may not hark back to the same device. The photography is gorgeous, a wonderful sense of compositional framing is evident throughout and the timing matches the slow, dreamy pace of the film superbly.

I'm miles away from really appreciating Mirror. So far I can only take it at surface value, take from it its beauty and sense of introspection. Clearly there are many layers in there, metaphors I don't understand, subtleties that are lost on me, partly becuase I need to watch the film more, and partly because I lack experience with cinema of this quality, but I know I enjoyed Mirror a lot and will return to it again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Under the weather

Sorry for the dirth of posts over the last week. I've not been well, the chest infection rendering me pretty low for much longer than expected, and the inspiration just hasn't been here.
Apart from the occasions when job interviews have seen me have to drag myself out into the real world I've had little energy to do much more than sleep, get annoyed at Sudoku puzzles, and sit in bed with a sketchbook. Today I feel well enough to be up and bouncing about and what happens? Yeah it doesn't stop raining again. Can't win around here!
I've actually done very little music listening too, perhaps a little burnt out after several months of intense investigations, but when I have been listening its either been to the BBC Proms on Radio 3 and any CD listening has been almost exclusively Shostakovich and Mahler.

Things are looking much brighter here today though as I have yet to cough all morning and a nice little bundle of CDs fell through the letterbox, which is always guaranteed to spark life into these old bones. Four separate packages, the first two were eBay purchases, and I'm pleased to say my copy of Patterns in a chromatic field is here safe and well, along with an old OOP disc of unusual Luigi Nono realisations under the eye of Bruno Maderna. Unusual in that they are less commonly performed works rather than unusual performances, though as I have yet to listen it may apply both ways.

The two new discs from Will Benton's Formed label arrived, looking good. Raymond & Marie by the Mersault trio of Korber, Weber and Wolfarth is a live recording from a Swiss festival that I'm looking forward to hearing.ij, the duo disc of Lucio Capece and Toshi Nakamura sounds very nice however, having given it its first spin this morning, more about that one later.

The final disc I received is a CDR packaged in a white card sleeve bound up roughly in heavy duty black tape and comes from the American duo of Dave Barnes (otherwise known as Dave Quam in certain circles) and Graham Stephenson, an electronics, trumpet collaboration. No idea what to expect, which is often the best way to approach a new CD...

Anyway, thats about it for now, I just wanted to put up a post to stop rust settling in, I'm off to make lunch and spend the afternoon with some new music :)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Yes we have Nono Mahlers

Strangely melancholic mood today, possibly just exhausted from a few days illness and the effect a cocktail of antibiotics can have, but been a day of romantic and reflective listening. For some reason, on waking really early I felt the need to put on Luigi Nono's monumental Prometeo, and so at 5.30AM as I dragged my poorly rested body from bed Nono's self-declared Tragedy of Listening shone about the room. This is pretty unusual for me as I rarely play music in the morning, preferring to listen to Radio4 if anything, but today has been an odd one all round.

Still pretty under the weather I spent much of the day on the living room sofa, getting annoyed at a Su-Do-Ku puzzle and reading TJ Clark's excellent The Sight of Death about which I'll probably write more when I've finished it, but I also found time to sit and watch the A Trail on the Water DVD that I think I've written about here before, the story of the close friendship between Luigi Nono, pianist Maurizio Pollini and conductor Claudio Abbado. I think this Nono obsession today comes from my joy last night after booking tickets to see the Arditti Quartet play a couple of Nono works in October, but no excuse needed really.

Anyway towards the end of the DVD there is a passage of film that draws links between the three artist's love of Mahler's symphonies (another recent exploration of mine) and includes a lovely section featuring Abbado conducting Mahler's Ninth, his final finished symphony completed not long before his death. Then later this evening I headed over to Julie's and very soon after dinner her own exhaustion got the better of her (she's had a tough few days) and she fell asleep in my arms on the sofa. I have to admit to being very happy about this however, as believe it or not on BBC4 TV they were about to show the Proms broadcast of Mahler's Tenth symphony, reconstructed by Derek Cooke from Mahler's detailed, but unfinished sketches.

So a beautiful experience, a sleeping girlfriend in one arm, a mug of hot lemon and paracetamol in the other, dimmed lights and some gorgeous, melancholic music to boot... Unfortunately it had to end, I had to put Julie to bed, drive home and sit here now getting annoyed at my own irritating cough. Oh well, there's whisky here and I think I'll end the day as it began with Prometeo...

Monday, August 06, 2007

One of those nice little eBay moments

I think most visitors here will have a list, however short, of recordings that if they ever saw them for sale, either in a shop or on eBay they would move heaven and earth to try and lay their hands on. My list is surprisingly short, just two or three items I always keep an eye open for, and down the years I have managed to find a good few things I've long been looking for, simply through patient determination.

One CD has long avoided me though, and has been on top of my list for years on end, the Rohan de Saram and Marianne Schroeder recording on the HatArt label of Morton Feldman's Patterns in a chromatic field. I've known the music for quite some time, having been able to get hold of some good quality Mp3s a while back, but I've never seen the discs for sale anywhere. Not in any shop, online or otherwise, and until last week never on eBay. Then after searching tirelessly on a regular basis a copy just appeared and I've watched it like a hawk for the last five days. The auction ended at half past two this morning, and so I set an alarm to make sure I was awake to fight off any last minute challengers, but none came. Earlier yesterday someone placed a $25 maximum bid against the disc, which wasn't even faintly close enough to topple my maximum bid, and so I ended up winning the disc for $26, or £13, some four or five pounds less than it would sell new over here. (If by some crazy chance my rival bidder should happen to read this, I'm sorry!)

So I'm not going to count my chickens until the disc arrives in the post, but I am a cautiously happy person this morning.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Doom, gloom and some rather nice music

Feels like nothing but stress and gloom around here at the moment. My own health hasn't improved over the last day or so, a chest infection rendering me close to useless, coughing up green gunk by the gallon and sweating like a paedophile in a playground. If no improvement in the morning I'm off to get some antibiotics. Two other bad pieces of news in the last 24 hours though, Julie lost yet another family member and is naturally pretty low, as my youngest brother was rushed into casualty today. An operation he had to remove a benign cyst refused to heal properly and opened up spilling blood everywhere whilst he was out shopping. Neil visits these pages from time to time, and he's fine, waiting on some minor surgery to sort it out, but if you read this Neil, stop being a lazy sod, get out of bed and stop bleeding on everyone :)

So not much to report, dear readers, though I did make a flying trip into London yesterday to drop some Cathnor CDs off at Sound323 and to meet up briefly for a mug of tea with Travis Just, a New York composer and musician, and all-round pleasant and decent guy whose music I have enjoyed in the past on the rare occasions it has crossed my path. Travis plays and records a lot in Berlin, and was in London for just a few days en route to Germany. Working often in the orbit of the Wandelweiser composers' collective. He runs the Object Collection label to showcase his music, although from our chat I sense his music is best served in a live setting and he is less of a fan of the CD medium. His work can also be heard on the Wandelweiser radio stream if you have the patience to wait for one of his pieces to come around!
For those readers in the New York area Travis is organising a series of performances throughout the first half of 2008 at a place called the Ontological-Hysterical Incubator, bring over the likes of Christian Kesten and Radu Malfatti amongst others.
Anyway it was nice to meet you Travis, all be it pretty briefly!

So I made my regular wander around the (newly refurbished) shelves of Sound323 in search of anything worth investigation. In recent months these visits have seen me walk away with less and less music, mainly as so much stuff comes at me from many other angles these days. I bought five CDs though, and for once I can't wait to play them all. A 2CD set on the and/OAR label of what appears to be musical responses to the films of Yasujiro Ozu looks interesting. Amongst the many names on the discs, Taku Sugimoto, new work from Bernhard Günter and Toshiya Tsunoda stand out as possible winners, but I've played it yet, but looking forward to giving that a listen later.

The jewel in the crown of yesterday's acquisitions though is the new solo CD by Mark Wastell on the Kning Disk label. Come Crimson Rays is the slightly dodgy title (;)) of the third and final disc in Mark's solo tam tam series, the first two released under the Vibra title. This new, gorgeously packaged disc investigates the bass end of the instrument's possibilities, with most of the sounds coming from the lower end of the spectrum, Unlike the other Vibra discs though there is an awful lot more space on Come Crimson Rays, with the first and third of the three tracks in particular focussing more on small clusters of soft strikes of the tam tam, with each note allowed to decay sumptuously slowly and drift off into the silence. Much of Mark's recent solo work has been concerned with this notion of decaying sounds in a Feldmanesque manner, and the subtelty of his touch with this instrument lends itself perfectly.
The music on this disc is really quite dark, almost ritualistic stuff, and perhaps not the best thing for me to be playing to lift the gloom around here right now, but its really rather beautiful, fragile music I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Tonight I listened to the BBC Proms broadcast of Shostakovich's seventh symphony performed by a youth orchestra and I rather enjoyed the rousing, epic qualitites of the music on a ridiculously hot (come back rain, all is forgiven!) summers evening. I've been slowly working through the 27 disc Shostakovich set, which begins with the symphonies, and have so far listened to No's 1-5. It'll be interesting to hear No.7 very soon just after listening to this broadcast.

OK, I'm off to cough my guts up again.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Photo of the Month No.5



A wall in Parthenay, Western France two weeks ago. I like this as it covers most of my favourite photographic subjects in one go, rust, crumbling walls and shadows. I like the way it contrasts nature's ever-present energy with the impermanence of everything manmade. But then I can be a bit pretentious at times ;)

A Grumpy Day

I've been ill for a few days. Not completely bed-ridden but suffering from a pretty heavy chest infection. Today though I ventured out for the first time since my trip up to Uffington White Horse (making that trip in just a t-shirt late in the evening probably didn't help the chest infection to be honest, but hey-ho) Anyway today I went into London for a job interview for a job I probably don't want. Well when I say into London I actually barely scratched the edge of the city as the interview was held at the head offices of a company situated just outside Paddington station, which is where my train from London arrives in town.

So, as the railways over here are about as reliable as the Creative Sources catalogue ;) I left far too early and arrived with an hour and a half to kill before I needed to be at the interview. There was little point going anywhere far, as there was barely enough time to make it down into the centre and back and no point risking getting stuck there so I decided to kill the time on Paddington station. I know this station well. Very well. Too well after spending more than one night there in the past after missing the last train home after a concert. Its changed a lot in recent years though and a lot of new shops and fast food atrocities have appeared.

Going for a wander around the grotesque shopping centre unfathomably named "The Lawn" just depressed me very quickly. The window of the Monsoon women's clothes shop informed me I would be "very smart" if I took advantage of their summer sale. Either that or a transvestite anyway. A wander into a music shop that used to be called Sanity but now doesn't seem to want to admit to having a name and included Chris Rea and Phil Collins-era Genesis albums in their special section entitled "Great Journey Listening" nearly drove me to arson until a helpful tannoy announcement reminded me that there's no smoking allowed anywhere on the station.

As I wandered about it amazed me just how many people had the inevitable little white earbuds in their ears. Maybe as many as one in five people seemed to have an iPod or similar about their person somewhere. Has there ever been a period in history before when so many people have listened to so much music? Probably not. The depressing thing is its probably all dreadful music however. For a moment I wondered how many of the people buzzing about were listening to the something from the "Great Journey Listening" selection, but then I remembered that most people departing from Paddington would be doing so on either a First Great Western or a Virgin train, so the term "Great" was unlikely to apply to their journey.

Feeling peckish, but also feeling pretty repulsed by the fact that the Railway Inn pub on the station has been renamed The Mad Bishop and Bear I walked straight past very quickly and instead went to a favourite haunt of mine, the West Corwall Pasty Co shop on the station. This place always puts a smile on my face and it didn't fail me today. Its furbished inside in the most hilarious fake Cornish fisherman's cottage style you could imagine, complete with a Welsh dresser to hold napkins and cutlery, and signs on the wall warning to "Beware of the Coastal Path". Knowing West Cornwall very well I think its safe to say that the main bedroom in the Taj Mahal has a more authentic Cornish feel to it than this place, but I'm sure it keeps the thousands of tourists that flock through Paddington en route from Heathrow every day happy.

One thing I hadn't noticed in here before though and certainly did pay attention to today is the music. I noticed today probably because as I walked in and ordered a beef and stilton pasty (this took a while as my command of Polish isn't up to scratch yet) The Velvert Underground's Venus in Furs was playing. (A great tune about S&M in New York back in the 60's so a good fit for the Cornish theme to the place) This was followed by REM's Losing my Religon but then oddly by a track by S-Club 7, Culture Club's dreadful The War Song and Don't worry, be happy by Bobby McFerrin...
I'm really not sure that a more bizarre, random mix of songs could be possible, and what's more this was no radio station playing, rather a CD of prepared music for the place that was interspersed by the sounds of (presumably authentic Cornish) seagulls and adverts for assorted flavours of pasty... a little odd to say the least, but it kept me amused for quite a while. Its only when Genesis' Turn it on again came on that I hurriedly left the remains of my pasty and ran for it. I wonder if they get their odd CD compilations from the "Great Journey Listening" section at not-Sanity? We may never know.

At this point I left the station and headed out onto Praed Street which was just about visible beyond the haze of smoke created by all those people that followed orders not to smoke anywhere on the station and instead created a gateway of nicoteine intoxication just outside the entrance to ensure us passive smokers don't miss out on our fix. As I headed for the exit I passed the Paddington Bear merchandise stall. This is basically a mobile shop that is permanently set up on the station with a mission to sell a cuddly Paddington Bear figure to every stupid person that passes by. They always seem really busy. Today I noticed they had a sign announcing that the Paddington Bear in a Union Jack overcoat toy would be back in stock next Monday. This made me wonder. As Paddington was a very proud immigrant of Darkest Peru, and as he isn't (as far as I'm aware) a supporter of the BNP, why would he be wearing a Union Jack overcoat? Maybe they were in the Monsoon sale.

Wandering aimlessly along Praed Street in awe at just how many different ways you can spell Shish Kebab I stopped for a while at the Big Red London Bus Gift Shop, but it was whilst trying to decide which Princess Diana postcard I needed the most that I realised time was getting on and I should head for my interview.

So why did I make this post? Its got little to do with music...Erm no idea really beyond the fact that my ill health has put me in something of a Victor Meldrew mood and I thought I'd share that with you all. I'm going back to London tomorrow morning. Think I might drive this time.