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 http://www.anothertimbre.com/werder2005(1).html, uploaded to UDP here: http://uploaddownloadperform.net/ManfredWerder/20051
[3] This was something suggested of Ist gefallen in der Schnee, 2010. See http://www.anothertimbre.com/page129.html. 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 http://cathnor.com/?product=claire-bergerault-jean-luc-guionnet-mune 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.