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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Skogen vs. Skogen

 Skogen – Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long, Another Timbre, at71, 2014 [1]

Dowland's 'If my complaints could passions move', published by Peter Short, London, 1597. This is actually a consort table-book, as can be seen from the fact that the Bassus and Altus are rotated. Below the Cantus is lute tablature.

The problem with going to concerts of improvised music is that you can remain puzzled by what you just heard, with very little to help you get out of this puzzlement. This is, of course, also one of their major attractions. The music disappeared—it doesn’t exist any more, and if you need a greater amount of time to understand it, to go over it, tough.
     My experience of Skogen and Magnus Granberg’s Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long ought to be seen in this light. On the 24 February, at the album launch concert organised by Simon Reynell, an ensemble made up of Granberg, Angharad Davies, Anna Lindal, Erik Carlsson, and Henrik Olsson—all of whom are in the established line-up of this ensemble—was joined by Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, Samuel Rodgers, Tim Parkinson and Oliver Coates.
      This shouldn’t matter—as they were playing a composition. These are serious musicians, supervised by the composer no less. Granberg’s piece derives its material somewhat obliquely from Dowland’s song If my complaints could passions move, and is in several sections which, on the night, were determined by a large television monitor positioned behind the audience. It wasn’t in the end clear to me whether this meant there was a ‘mobile’ form or not—it looked to me as if Tim Parkinson’s piano material was all in order of sequence—but in any case, one ought to be able to play the same composition with several different ensembles. Right?
      Well, there’s a problem. Was Skogen—the band that performed—the same Skogen I’m listening to here? Do they need to be, for consistency's sake? This goes right to the heart of the composition-improvisation nexus that’s frequently cropping up today, not least as represented by Simon’s label. Who is the author of this CD? By way of comparison, we might ask: who is the author, so to speak, of the resulting sounds generated by Manfred Werder’s 2005(1)? Werder’s contribution consists of the direction:
[place, time, (sounds)][2]

If you play this piece, are you the ‘author’ of the sounds that emerge, or is Werder? Can you listen to an environment with your own two ears and hear it as ‘authored’ by Werder? The ambiguity here is deliberate. Traditional models of composition tend to differentiate performance from authorship. A performer is author of their performance; a composer is author of their composition. But in Skogen and Werder’s case there is a blurring—a deliberate blurring, one that is part of the aesthetic.
      There is a reason the CD is credited to ‘Skogen’ and not, as it were, to ‘Magnus Granberg’. One might imagine what this reason is—that Granberg perhaps regards his composition to be of the same essential creativity as those improvising musicians playing in the group alongside him. One might conceive of this as analogous with popular music, say. Radiohead’s songs, as most people know, are mostly written by Thom Yorke. But—and this is important for legal reasons—their authorship is credited to all of Radiohead. In popular music it’s perfectly reasonable and frequently the case that performers are part authors. But there’s an additional problem—while popular musicians can ‘cover’ others’ work, they can’t re-author it themselves. Subsequent performance, by others, does not constitute an additional legal intervention—royalties must be paid.
      With improvised music, what happens to this scheme? Is the musical object ‘authored’ by Skogen this particular CD itself? Or does Granberg pre-emptively include their authorship ‘within’ his composition (i.e. that Granberg isn’t offering Despairs on the ‘open market’—it’s not as if anyone can come along and play the piece, paying a royalty to him). What then, to go back to the 24 February, did I witness?
       I should be clear. Oliver Coates (a cellist, not usually associated with this kind of music, but still very sensitive and experienced and a great musician) remarked to me before the concert that it was ‘very different’ from the CD. So much had been said by (presumably) Granberg in rehearsals. We listened to the piece—and the performance was delicate, careful, and slightly sentimental. Actually this was a word that kept cropping up in my head as I listened. Skogen means forest—and my thoughts ran to scenes from Scandinavian noir television so popular for the past few years. Of course in these programmes the stony, grey exterior is just a mask, for crime material just as emotionally charged and, for want of a better word, sentimental, as the British standard fare. Distancing, ‘artsy’ Verfremdungseffekt is generated through the use of subtitles and scheduling on BBC4. (This perceived sentimentality was probably not helped by Oliver’s more or less constant, wispy flautando vibrato. Of the kind of music Another Timbre puts out, one can be fairly sure that strings mostly play senza vibrato—it’s an aesthetic position as much as it is a stylistic habit.)
       The CD is different. While the pitch material is noticeably the same, it is on the whole much drier, much less ‘boggy’, less ‘atmospheric’. The electroacoustic interventions from Petter Wästberg and Toshimaru Nakamura are dry, stony. While this is a very beautiful CD, and less austere than many others issued by Another Timbre, it is more austere than the performance I heard.
       One wonders whether or not the lyricism present in the February performance was the ‘essential’ quality to this material. Without wishing to essentialise, nonetheless, the performance I heard walked closer to Semper Dowland, semper dolens in its outward character. The CD is, in temperament (though not pitch structure), like Skogen’s previous release, more akin to Feldman than Dowland[3]. There is of course a Dowlandian melancholy but one wonders whether its lyric aspect was (unconsciously) minimised for the purposes of recording, for certain imagined audiences etc.
       The Skogen disc nonetheless presents us with some intriguing suggestions—one ‘way out’, as it were, of the corner improvisation sometimes finds itself in (in other words, the ‘stagnant’ corner commentators frequently bang on about). It is this lyric aspect which is so enticing. From the point of view of reductionist improvisation, it’s pretty radical thinking.[4] Even this CD’s diatonic modal material (mostly derived from Dowland) is itself risqué, aesthetically.
       It is my feeling that occasional and abrupt stylistic diversion is needed, almost as an aesthetic shock to the system. There isn’t a sense in which this CD does this—it’s a calm, at times pretty addition to the Another Timbre catalogue—but it points the way towards something more radical. Antoine Beuger with triads, perhaps. 

[1] Magnus Granberg: piano, clarinet, composition; Angharad Davies: violin; Leo Svensson Sander: cello; Anna Lindal: violin; John Eriksson: marimba, vibraphone; Ko Ishikawa: sho; Toshimaru Nakamura: no-input mixing board; Erik Carlsson: percussion; Petter Wästberg: contact microphones, objects; Henrik Olsson: bowls and glasses
[2] See realisations here, uploaded to UDP here:
[3] This was something suggested of Ist gefallen in der Schnee, 2010. See One interesting comparison both to that recording and this one is Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s beautiful composition Schnee—itself a very delicate mixture of reductionism, melancholy, and modal inflection.
[4] In this relation, I'm thinking of Cathnor's release Mune from a couple of years ago Richard says it is '[i]ntense, powerful music that will annoy as many as it delights.' If it can really do both these things, this music must have something going for it.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Apartment House at Wigmore Hall, 15/01/2014

Apartment house

Anton Lukoszevieze next year will have been running Apartment House—the ensemble—for twenty years. While sheer longevity is not necessarily a virtue considered on its own, anyone who is at all familiar with their performances over that time will be aware of the tremendous stamina, control, not to mention quality, with which they have continued to realise the music that is their specialty. Laurence Crane pointed out in an interview[1] recently that in a number of European countries there simply isn’t any musical output that could be labelled ‘experimental’ in the way that certain of the independent trends in British music can—in the sense that any Musik that could be described ‘Neuen’, strange or what-have-you, is gobbled up and protected by some state- or institutionally-affiliated body. Such a situation simply cannot afford the independence of spirit encountered in Britain—though those of us on the breadline know just how hollow that ‘independence of spirit’ can be.
What to make, then, of Apartment House’s recent outing at Wigmore Hall? Wigmore is hardly the pinnacle of some hypothetical musical establishment[2], but it is a venue heavy with background administration (their programme is printed glossy). It is also quite a big room, and as such, when full, contains quite a lot of people. This programme—opening with Laurence Crane, and visiting works by Mathias Spahlinger, Christopher Fox, Peter Garland, Amon Wolman, Rytis Mazulis and George Maciunas—wasn’t particularly opaque but wasn’t an introductory primer either. But suffice it to say the room was full.
Laurence Crane’s Sparling 2000, which opened, could be quintessential Crane (he has reworked the same material in different instrumentations). The clarinet humming away to itself accompanied by a string quartet issuing simple and subtle chromatically voice-led triads. Wistful but not quaint. But Christopher Fox’s Memento (piano and string quartet) was however lacking in transparency in places: muddy, wallowing, mooing sirens; and its strikingly Webernian ending does not preclude its slightly soggy middle. And Mathias Spahlinger’s 128 Erfüllte Augenblicke—of which only a selection was played—landed in the room with something of a thump, despite Spahlinger’s amazing craft and the ensemble’s subtle dexterity and skill in presentation.
What was going on? This was a programme whose character was discernable arguably only if one knew the subtle contexts for many of the musical statements being made—Christopher Fox’s other piece, blank, is a studied essay in austerity; white chalk lines drawn on an ashen background. If one understood the context for this kind of musical statement, then one could understand its force—but these pieces, when put together, did not shout their aesthetic priorities at you as so much other contemporary music does; neither did they whisper for rhetorical effect; rather they talked somewhat straightly. They relied on a certain willingness to give benefit of the doubt; this was acquired-taste-music.
(Amon Wolman’s bizarre Dead End, for clarinet and toys, sailed past this auditor. An overlong and wandering clarinet solo was accompanied by a series of wailing and whining emergency-service children’s toys, hurrying around the stage in their tiny way, whilst Andrew Sparling did a commensurate job of continuing with the clarinet music regardless, gradually turning off each toy until, after some twenty minutes, we were left with silence. Laughter, sometimes forced laughter, seat-shifting and head-scratching, and not a tremendous amount of listening. On my part I was wondering whether the piece—composed as it was by an Israeli composer, clarinet material referencing klezmer, including as it did curiously godlike intervention by big people directing constantly whirring emergency service vehicles who themselves kept bashing into artificially created barriers—had anything to say about Israeli politics, but I digress.)
There were some exceptions. Rytis Mazulis’s Canon Mensurabilis, with its microtonal pulsation and unremitting exploration of the material it begins and ends with, was a proper world within which to dwell. And George Manciunas’ In Memoriam Adriano Olivetti, with its fluxus-era stand-up-sit-down sillyness was testament to the humour sedimented in much else that had proceeded it. But most of our audience was here not, arguably, to enjoy the second performance in London of Spahlinger’s Augenblicke in three months (the first had been at King’s Place in late 2013[3]); they were here for many reasons, not least to do with the fact that the Wigmore Hall entitles a certain automatic caché through pricing and precedent, and also (as Tim Parkinson pointed out to me) that this was a ‘new year’s resolution crowd’.
Except, as has been pointed out previously, experimental and contemporary music can and does draw audiences, even outside of the capital. One only had to witness the festival held last year in Peckham multi-storey car park—5000 tickets sold out in a few days. Those tickets were free, but they could quite easily have been priced and the festival would still have been well attended (as many other such festivals are). Experimental music does demonstrably interest a wide range of people; but we who are most often involved are used to it being, if not anti-establishment, then just simply marginal, might find that large audiences of anyone-and-everyone are as wonderful as they are unsettling.

[1] ‘An Hour 11’, interview with Ophir Ilzetzki, originally broadcast 09/02/2010
[2] Reviewing the list of performances on Apartment House’s website this is the only time they have yet performed there.
[3] That concert, ‘Some Recent Silences’, 22 September 2013, King’s Place, had also been performed by Apartment House with Lore Lixenburg, and curated by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. It may well have been the UK (and almost certainly London) premiere of that piece.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Music We'd Like to Hear 2013: III

Anton Lukoszevieze

I grew up in a house in Woodford, in a house on one of the few unpaved roads in London. It was also in the middle of Epping Forest. Though to my knowledge this doesn't happen much these days, occasionally when I was a child I would see a group of cows wandering down my road and through down the forest path and out somewhere -- god knows where. It would be a lie to say that I thought a herd of cows wandering through the forest was completely normal -- though if anyone knows the area, cattle grids are abundant, so there would seem to be, as it were, the consistent 'potential' for cows to appear. But if anything my recollection is not so much of puzzlement that they were there at all, but rather admiration that they managed to find their way though by themselves. I cannot remember seeing the cattle-driver, who presumably must have existed; but then again, who's watching out for the man with the stick when there's a herd of cows going past.

Jonathan Marmor's piece Cattle in the Woods (2008) wanted the listener to be reapportioned relative to the material -- hear what is presumably familiar made new, or in a new setting. This was a strong piece musically, though it captured a more grown-up feeling of stolid, perhaps indefatigable nonchalance -- wryness, though serious -- that really has nothing to do with the childhood wonder I associate with the title's image. This piece instigated the kind of feeling one might get when seeing something very unusual occurring but nevertheless considering it normal -- to put it another way, the self-normalising effect, by accretion, of the strange. Usual things are just those strange things we've grown accustomed to.

The piece had been arranged for two reed organs (Tim Parkinson, Markus Trunk), cello (Anton Lukoszevieze), melodica (John Lely), and synthesiser (Angharad Davies), which produced an inspired combination of timbres. The music had a kind of flatness, that nevertheless moved in some direction (was not static). The material was tonal with typical voice-leading patterns, but with occasional microtonal inflections; the harmonic material was randomly arranged. This was unsettling, though quickly entirely normal music -- which perhaps made it even more unsettling.

Other pieces in this concert were notable, though none was quite as strong as Marmor's. Christian Wolff's Cello Suite Variation (2000), like others of his pieces, is a 'reworking' of Bach, specifically the first cello suite. Tim said that Christian had been asked to write the piece based on Bach, and of course never being able to live up to the original compositional standards, Christian was left in a somewhat grumpy mood. Perhaps this was the piece's downfall -- Christian in some ways takes Bach too seriously for his own good. It would, perhaps, have been better to just take the material naively and rub out bits of it, extrapolate it and cut it up. As it was, the music felt like it was 'derived in', but not made up of, Bach's notes. As such it attempted to raise itself above the level of collage but could not quite. By treating Bach's music as the product of a human being, as it were, one at once takes it too seriously and not seriously enough.

Matteo Fargion's 11 Notturni (1991) for piano, was pretty, though again, I wondered quite what he was trying to get at. I felt at times like the piece's gestures were done half-heartedly -- Fargion compared the piece to Feldman (though not as chromatic), and Chopin (though to my ears not as saccharine). In some ways the Chopin influence ought to have been more explicitly drawn, and hence the piece more provocative, rather than (admittedly this was an early work) some attempt to appease the Gods of post-Cagean minimalism whilst wanting to keep smiling and very much in control.

I thought Luiz Henrique Yudo's Five Palindromes (1997) was an excellent series, though. Based entirely on a single rhythmic schema (itself containing lots of non-retrogradable internal bits and pieces), the piece had an amiable brevity -- split into short movements -- and self-similarity which was very admirable. The practice of setting up quite a stable and constricted (for want of a better word) situation and then playing with it, very audibly, was nice. I was reminded at times of work by language poets -- for example, Christian Bok, whose Eunoia (2002), uses only one of the five vowels for each of its chapters.

The concert ended with Jurg Frey's 2 Stucke (1991) -- excitingly a world premiere (then again, he's written quite a bit). These pieces were not as laconic as some of Frey's later work -- there was an obvious link with Feldman again, though even at this early stage the material is quite pared down. Rather what was interesting -- in particular the second piece -- was the occasional and surprising bursts of busy-ness, which I very much enjoyed, as well as a dwelling on major/minor second monophonic appogiaturas in piano left hand and cello, a simple but very rewarding gesture in aural terms.

I think Tim and Anton, and Markus and John are all due tremendous thanks for continuing with this concert series and putting in the effort to keep it going and interesting. It remains an important addition to the new music goings-on in London and the UK in general, and I hope their able to continue, in this fantastic new Wren church of all places. I look forward to next year.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Music We'd Like to Hear 2013: II

Wren's dome at St Mary-at-Hill. Photo: John Salmon

This concert, curated by John Lely, opened with what turned out to be a misperception on my part, though I found it thought-provoking nonetheless. A recital for Violin solo, its first half considered two pieces by Jurg Frey and some other works which I felt added to and enriched this established language. 

By way of introduction, we had Frey's WEN 3. The programme notes, gloriously short aphoristic snatches, were perfect -- Frey offers 'WEN means structure, responsibility, balence/feeling' / 'it's always the same'. But above this short description was the date 1999-2007. Initially, I thought this meant the piece, which was a short, one-page look at major seconds (G and open A string), interleaved with silence, took Frey eight years to write. A stunning concession if it were true! What was he doing in all of those eight years? Or perhaps it was revised, Frey having decided to (perhaps) add more notes, and then subsequently delete them.

Of course, somewhat predictably this was not the case. Rather, it is Frey's (latterly it turned out for me, as I had not encountered them before) whole series of WEN pieces, some of which are truly gargantuan -- WEN 24 for flute lasts 2h16'42" -- that took eight years to complete. These pieces are almost all solos, with occasional duets with percussion. 

In any case, this pointed to one thing I had been pondering before, which is whether or not there really is too much Wandelweiser music. Not being performed, I mean (though some people could make that argument; it doesn't stand up in my opinion), but rather, composed. The output of Frey, Beuger, Pisaro, is vast in number, and equally vast in duration. Perhaps because these pieces don't take long to write (though sometimes, of course, they do), and because the language is somewhat extendable, the catalogues seem to run on. Frey is an interesting case in point as, in Tim Parkinson's video visit to his studio, one witnesses his essentially diaristic way of working. In this sense it would seem, works grow out of each other; lines between works are not as clearly drawn as one might expect with other composers (even, perhaps, Cage; and Feldman certainly). 

But, the concert. The other Frey piece was A Memory of Perfection (2010), a stunning two-page piece, which seems to imply its own echoes. Played exquisitely by Mira Benjamin (of the Bozzini Quartet); the bowing technique is that incredibly light, almost breathy sound which there -- frustratingly from a composer's point of view --  isn't a convenient italian or other consistent term for. I can only suggest bisbigliando, or perhaps to avoid confusion with the harp technique, sussurrando. It's the kind of sound one gets when one does not put enough rosin on the bow, and the result is sublime.

The other pieces offered varying perspectives on sometimes quite different material. Cassandra Miller's for Mira (2012) was a highly rhetorical 'transcription' of Kurt Cobain vocals -- it sounded more like Stevie Ray Vaughan on the violin -- which felt like a interpolation. But it was a strong work, with an intriguing overlaid repetitive structure, that nonetheless did not lapse into Glassian sophism. 

Paul Newland's piece mukei (2001), and Richard Glover's piece Chords and Transformations (2013) seemed to run into each other in my ears. Both of them felt quite self effacing, with the Newland disappearing sometimes into pizzicato, and the the Glover feeling meticulous and somewhat studied. Chords slid into each other and were transformed -- and that was about it. Glover's short programme aphorism was 'it sees itself out', which, it is safe to say, most of this first half indeed did, and without being too shouty (Miller's piece excepted). 

After the interval, we had Tim Parkinson's violin piece (2006). Not everyone likes Tim's music, often it requires one to give it the benefit of the doubt, but if done so there is usually something charming about it. This piece, like others of Tim's, adopts what could be called the 'one-thing-after-another' form. To call it potpourri would be unnecessarily derogatory. What one's abiding relation to this music is one of thwarted expectation. The piece begins with a strong series of rising figures, intervals and pitch-world quite distinctive of Tim's music (it hovers somewhere in-between tonality and atonality, but not in the colourful way that, say, late Ligeti does -- Tim's pieces make a point of being plain and inviting one to see inner distinction in plainness). These are strong gestures, but once we've moved on to the next section, they don't come back. So memorable in places are the bits and pieces that one keeps expecting them to reappear, even somewhat transformed. Perhaps they do, but so transformed so as not to be audible to me. 

Tim's aphorism was 'it's all shapes and sizes', which could mean 'there is a lot of variety', could also mean 'this piece consists of patterns and proportions'. The latter interpretation I felt worked better, and the patterns and proportions of the piece were often quite audible. One section that was medium length would be followed by a short section of quick-ish material, and then a long section of more extended material would follow. Listening to structure in this music is like listening to structure in Feldman -- you think you've nearly cottoned on to something, but it turns out that that is about as far as you're ever going to get. 

Also in this piece is a fleeting irony -- there is a section where the violin plays long notes (of varying lengths), followed by a short rest and then the same note in pizzicato. It's a little difficult to describe the effect of this, but to me it felt such an almost stupidly simple gesture that it obtained an extra something. I suppose I was laughing at Tim 'getting away with it' as it were. 

I'm not sure whether Tim gets away with his music -- I would hope so -- and I know that some of his pieces can have quite significant effects on people. But of course different people think different things. Tim said to me before the concert that he didn't much like (though I think now he's changed his mind a bit) writing beginnings to pieces. Or, to put it another way, he didn't like having written something that would always have to be a beginning, sitting as it did at the start of a piece. Hence his exploration with mobile forms in some pieces. I think this insight is significant. Tim's music doesn't really 'introduce' or announce itself, it just starts; and even if you might think it's announced itself, one shouldn't be fooled; all it's done is started. And it's not a Elliot-Carter-esque rhetorical 'in media res' (not something I'm so fond of I have to say); rather we land in a flat place that is the middle and the start and the end all at once. Tim's music is just 'there'. And in some ways it's more 'there', or tangible, than more minimal Wandelweiserish music (the second of the Frey pieces in this concert, for example), which disappear into the aether or point 'to the beyond'. Pisaro is even better at doing this -- his music a lot of the time tries to take one 'out of oneself'. I'm not sure Tim is interested in doing that. Listening to his music consists in noticing what the music is doing. Noticing that it's doing something and only going to do it once, noticing that it's moved on, noticing that it's in the middle of things, and then later, finished. 

Congrats to Mira and John for a really nice and thought-provoking concert. 

Music We'd Like to Hear III is on Friday.