Having let go of my obsessive following of music I still found myself with more than enough great music to listen to this year. Being able to judiciously select what discs (or increasingly preferable, digital files) to buy I found that I liked almost all that I bought. Curiosity and what seems to be a decrease in criticism (R.I.P. Paris Transatlantic, Dusted (though semi-revived) &c) and perhaps the move to more gated preserves from the commentariat did lead to my purchasing a few duds, but I’m sure I missed more good stuff than bought bad. Having lost touch with those dusty corners of the nets where all music finds itself eventually (or even before it hits the virtual shelves) I can only express endless gratitude to Alastair Wilson’s excellent radio programme Admirable Restraint for providing lengthy tastes of music new and old. Alastair has put out a fine collection of new pieces from artists old and new for a good cause for which I can only recommend you dig deep: by gum it’s a compilation. The loss of my record player last year and the refusal to acquire a tape deck (I was buying music during the heyday of cassette and we pretty much despised it then as every playback degraded the tape) has led to a few things missed so let me just add a word of praise for those labels who put their boutique format releases up for digital downloads as well. I think I’ve listened to more solo piano this year than anything everything from Beethoven to Feldman to Jurg Frey to Cage &c &c. I’m happy to report it was a great year for the kind piano musics I like. You’ll see plenty of it represented in the selections below. Finally a hearty thanks to all the musicians, producers, labels, writers and listeners out there (also to all those who compiled their year-end lists early: got a lot of great stuff in just the last few weeks). There is plenty of great vital music being made and if I only listed here what touched me the most deeply out of the small fraction I heard it doesn’t really mean all that much.
When this set was announced there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the release of the year, if not the decade. New World Records epic Music for Merce box set contains excerpts of the bulk of the pieces contained in this set and serves in a way as a sampler and impetus for this set. Throughout my lengthy five part review of Music for Merce I was continuously thrilled to hear these pieces but just as constantly lamented their excerpted nature. More than once I urged New World to release a box set of Tudor’s uncut performances. I doubt that I had any influence on this subsequent release but I can’t say how pleased I am it came about. New World really did yeoman’s work on this set with seven discs spanning the entirety of Tudor’s career from his electro-acoustic interpretation of Cage’s Variations II to Neural Network Plus with it’s complex combination of computer and live electronics.
This set deserves an equally lengthy discussion as Music for Merce but really delving into Tudor’s music demands an amount of research and work that basically hasn’t been undertaken. In my Music for Merce reviews I discuss each of the pieces that were excerpted, all of which are included on this set. Since I don’t do a minute by minute discussion of them they serve quite well regarding these pieces. Of course there are a few things on this set not included there: Tudor’s first major piece Bandonean !, two versions of Rainforest IV, another performance of Variations II that is a welcome edition to the other two available, the epic Cage/Tudor overlaid pieces Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham/Untitled and most notably the Anima Pepsi pieces from the 1970 Osaka World Fair. My preview post of this set upon it’s initial announcement discusses the significance of all of these pieces. Regarding the material shared between the two sets you can find my write up on the these pieces in the following links: Virtual Focus, Neural Network Plus,PhonemesWeatherings, Webwork and Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2 or 3 People.
In trying to analyze Tudor’s live electronic work James Pritchett found himself constructing his own circuits and began to work out how the music works from the ground up (I think this is from this interview: RWM SON[i]A #166). This is the equivalent of doing score analysis for conventionally notated pieces (though a far greater undertaking) and I think a necessary first step in understanding his process and methodology. From there a theory could be worked out (something like my (incomplete) Network Instrument Theory which starts from my electronic music making and builds up). Pritchett eventually gave up on this task which is a shame as it appears no-one else has undertaken it. A book covering the entirety of Tudor’s compositions, similar to Pritchett’s Music of John Cage is I think a needed resource. But for now the music itself will have to serve and this set, while alas still only a portion of Tudor’s work (though the major pieces I think it’s fair to say) does so admirably.
As a reader of Kyle Gann’s always informative and frequently amusing blog, Post Classic, I have been able to follow along with the rediscovery of Dennis Johnson’s November. Remembering November which Gann posted in later 2007 was the beginning of this odyssey and there are quite a few posts documenting his transcription of the piece from a hissy tape and a few notes, to the locating of Dennis Johnson himself (who had “given up on the 21st century in 2007” and thus disappeared from internet communication), to posting an mp3 of himself and Sarah Cahill performing the piece (currently unavailable AFAIK) to finally the release of R. Andrew Lee’s recording on the increasingly indispensable Irritable Hedgehog label. All this posts and many more can be found by searching for November on Gann’s blog.
I downloaded a lossless version of November from Irritable Hedgehog’s Bandcamp page which allows for one to do seamless playback of the nearly five hour piece. It has been played over and over again since that time. It’s meandering spare piano lines becoming increasingly varied with moments of more density, or intensity or lyricism I find endlessly captivating. I’ve listened to it straight through but also have just put on one of the “discs” as I’ve gone to bed. Some nights I hear less than others but there have been those nights where I heard the whole thing. Beautiful music, but more than that as it weathers any degree of scrutiny.
Along with November this album has probably had the most spins in my abode this year. Admittedly this again due to it being amenable to being put on as I attempt to sleep but as with all albums that meet that criteria that simply means that I’ve listened to it in the dark primarily focused on it as sleep remained at bay. This one has been a long time coming as it was recording in 1973 and it initially planned to be released by Halana Magazine years ago in an edited form which of course never materialized. Various reports of concerts featuring the piece mixed live from the original master tapes certainly wetted the appetites of those of us who love her electronic work. So when this was finally announced in a double CD form with a live and studio mix by Lionel Marchetti it was beyond welcome. The piece is another masterful Arp 2500 introspection utilizing spare tones carefully drifting and a bit of tape echo and some really stunning resonant filter ringing. Both versions are fascinating with the live one somehow even more stripped down than the studio. The applause at the end always comes as a shock. Things like this often don’t (or can’t) hold up to the legend and it is doubly rewarding when they do.
Jakob Ullmann fremde zeit addendum 4 · solo III für Orgel (Edition RZ)
The release from last year was Edition RZ’s three CD Jakob Ullmann box Fremde Zeiot Addendum which oddly enough contained a piece of cardboard inside it to prevent the contents from rattling about. It turned out that 2013 brought us a fourth disc that replaces that piece of cardboard and makes this vital set even more tremendous. A piece for solo organ that is heads and shoulders above any contemporary composition I’ve heard for the instrument since Messian. There have been a number of attempts to do highly minimal music on the church organ that to my ears have really fallen flat. This instrument, which I love so much, has really proven an insurmountable challenge to apply to this domain. Until now that is. Ulmann’s piece and the masterful playing of Hans-Peter Schulz beautifully recorded by Edition RZ finally reveals this unrealized potential of the instrument.
Michael PisaroClosed Categories in Cartesian Worlds [Greg Stuart, perc] (Gravity Wave)
This one was one of those I got late in the year but I am sure glad I did. As a long time fan of pure tone music from the clinical precision of Alvin Lucier to the all encompassing intensity of Sachiko M, to the piercing interiority of Mitsuhiro Yoshimura (not to mention my own explorations) this has long been a domain I’m fascinated with. Hewing closer to the Lucier mode of operation (and indeed the piece is dedicated to him) with a very precise composition utilizing electronic sine tones of specific duration in concert with the inherent variability of bowed metal. Michael Pisaro put it this way on his blog:
The physics of the crotale are very interesting, since like all metal instruments, its actual motion is relatively chaotic. It is not the absolutely stable and regular sound that it appears to be, but has fluctuating character, perhaps a bit like the reflected glare of any shiny object.
The piece was composed at percussionist, and frequent Pisaro collaborator, Greg Stuart’s request and his performance here is nothing short of inspired. The combination of the bowed crotals and the uncompromising electronic tones is just a shear physicality. Those of us who already appreciate Sachiko or Lucier already know that sine tones of sufficient cycles beat in your ear and undermine your sense of balance as well as subtly varying and shifting as you move around and this album delivers these effects in spades. But it isn’t nearly as clinical as Lucier often comes across as though it is as precisely defined as his pieces. The crotales I think are the special sauce here and Stuarts virtuosity.
Antoine BeugerSixteen Stanzas on Stillness And Music Unheard [Greg Stuart, perc] (l’innomable)
At the same time I received Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds I also received this disc. Which like the aforementioned Pisaro composition this one also involved Greg Stuart bowing metal, this time the chimes on a vibraphone. The recording is very quiet and slowly increases in volume across it’s duration. Like the crotales of the previous entry the bowed vibraphone has a very pure almost electronic sound but with a bit of warmth of instability. The music here is far less physical – the lack of high register, relentless electronics means there is only the acoustic sounds – but it is achingly beautiful. Less demanding and intense it is an excellent companion piece and probably my favorite composition yet from Antoine Beuger.
2013 has seen the fewest releases from Keith Rowe in years with this collaboration with Graham Lambkin being one of the few. This duo was put together by Jon Abbey of Erstwhile records and interestingly the two musicians independently decided to primarily utilize contact microphones and drawing supplies. Keith has been placing contact mic’s on his table and drawing with charcoal on it for some time now (I think I first witnessed this in 2008 at the Amplify fest in Kid Ailack Hall) and the whispery scratches have become a feature of his sound world. With Lambkin utilizing similar technique as well as the brittle, mid-range nature of contact mics this is truly an album of layers. Another layer is that the second track, the titular Making A, is a Scratch era composition by Cornelius Cardew erstwhile Rowe comrade. I can’t say that much of Lambkin’s work has appealed to me and I was a bit skeptical by this collaboration (though always curious). But once again Abbey’s ear for duo’s has born fruit and this really is a remarkable recording, one that I’ve returned to again and again throughout the year.
It’s sort of surprising how much Cage is still unavailable especially from his electronic period. Only in the last couple of years was Variations VII made available and it took until this year for Variations V to be available outside of special order from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. A truly collaborative piece, it involved sound sources monitored by Cage, Tudor and Mumma trigged by the MCDC. The piece is the dance, is the live electronics is the composition. It of course inherently indeterminacy due to the live electronics, thee variability in the spaces performed and in the dancers not to mention the fragility of the electronics. This excellent DVD from Mode presents a German Television shows broadcast of an in studio performance those allow us to experience this truly multimedia piece with the dance and video by Nam June Paik and Stan VanDerBekk as well as (occasionally) see the musicians working their electronics. It also includes an audio only recording from a live performance earlier in the tour which I think helps to understand this continually variable piece. Two interviews with dancers Carolyn Brown and Sandra Neel with Gus Baker provide some context, add details and more than a few amusing anecdotes.
I am in agreement with many that Toshiya Tsunoda is one of very (very) few field recordists doing vital work but even he has as many duds as successes. It seems to be his more conceptual pieces that turn out to be more interesting in concept than in execution so I was naturally skeptical about this recording he made along with Haco of a moving tram (I also was confusing Haco with a vocalist and I couldn’t imagine how that would work). However I was willing to watch this video, The Tram Vibration Project, to get a sense of how this turned out. I pretty much immediately ordered this disc after watching it. Of all the releases I heard from 2013 this one seems the most sound focused. It is about finding the sounds of this tram as it moves along. It’s structured by the trams passage and the choices of where to place one’s microphones (and apparently massive editing by Tsunoda). And what a rich world of crackles, hums, shakes, rumblings and other indescribable and downright fascinating sounds are revealed here. Watch the video, it is much better than anything I (or anyone) could write on this one.
John Tilbury’s magnificent touch on the piano and his effortless shifting from the abstractions of the body and insides of the piano, to pure romantic lyricism are fully present and are indeed the core of this album. Oren Ambarchi though gives this music it’s spine with a deft touch and breathtaking subtlety. One can’t help but think of Tilbury’s collaborations with Keith Rowe but the only similarity here is perhaps those moments before Keith has really begun to play and the buzzing and hums of his setup provide a tapestry upon which the piano rests. Ambarchi barely adds more than that grounding but mines that background radiation for all that it’s worth. The few times he surfaces are in delicate counterpoint to Tilbury’s playing and it almost comes across as the piano resonating into alien space.
This alas was a vinyl only release but happily the kind folks at Beatport have made it available for lossless download which you can find here: The Just Reproach.
I barely listened to any music for a good half of this year and I also, in the interest in not having huge amount of unlistened to plastic objects littering my abode, tried to only buy things I knew I’d listen to a lot. I have to say that I did quite well in that regard thanks to various music blogs and Alastair Wilson’s top drawer Admirable Restraint radio programme. Thanks Alastair! Thus any sort of “best of” music list, even in the micro-domains that hold my interest, is even more useless than normal. But I found there to be quite a bit of captivating music – nearly everything I bought – this year and there is certainly some value in writing a bit about it. There won’t be many (maybe any) shockers here for those that trade in these realms – the usual suspects are all here – but I’ll try to make up for that with a few words on each. Not really reviews – you should buy them already! – and not really critical commentary either; perhaps it’s just rambling. Whatever it is, this is what I’ve got for you this year.
Whenever Keith releases a solo album on Erstwhile Records it tends to supplant the last one as the definitive statement in improvised music. The Room, ErstLive 007 and now September seem like a teleological continuum rendering the previous statement mute. But on revisiting these piece The Room retains it’s power, its place as the definitive declaration (at least until The Room Extended) of Rowe’s philosophy and music, even as it’s language feels increasingly arcane. The two Erstlives are more of piece utilizing the framing device of composed pieces from the classical tradition to which Rowe’s improvisation, radio grabs aids, abets and deconstructs. The previous of these two pieces is well explained by Keith him self in a post on the Erstwords blog as is the nature of this framing device:
The concept for my solo performance was only formed the night previous to the performance itself. Thinking about the forthcoming solo, I felt the need to somehow make clear “who I was”: what my background is, what are my concerns? Something about my interest, the music I love, the sounds that have influenced me, during the performance I came to realise these could be regarded as “Cultural Templates”. – Keith Rowe, EL007
In September of 2011 Jon Abbey (Erstwhile Records) put on the most ambitious to date of his Amplify festivals: AMPLIFY 2011: Stones – two weeks at The Stone in New York City followed up by several days at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. On September 11th, 2011, the ten year anniversary of al-Qaeda attacks on US power structures (more here if you are somehow unaware of this), the nights activities included this solo performance. Keith Rowe certainly had a burden of expectations placed upon him by his audience. A burden that he could choose to ignore as a British expat living in France, but one that he rose to embrace as a citizen of a world that has been transformed by the American lashing out in the aftermath of these attacks.
Of course we don’t have the benefit of a minute examination from Keith of September like we do for EL007 and certainly speculation on this piece likely reveals more of the speculator then of the musicians intentions – just compare the reception of EL007 that came out before Keith’s exegesis (for instance read my thoughts here: Amplify 2008: light – day 2 [though of course I had the benefit of being able to talk extensively with Keith at this concert]). I didn’t have the luxury of discussing this performance with Keith, but Brian Olewnick did and from his excellent review of this piece this note is particularly helpful:
For Rowe, the Dvorak Piano Quintet had come to embody certain ideas about memory, including nostalgia, loss and false memories. Knowing that he was scheduled to perform in New York, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it seemed an appropriate piece to utilize. – Brian Olewnick on September
Unlike EL007, September utilizes just the Dvorak piece as it’s framing device, but he works much more with extended radio grabs. These being from NYC on September 11th, 2011 create a similar aural zeitgeist as you would have found in 2001 but shifted by ten years of a pop and media media landscape that had been irrevocably transformed not just by the passage of time but by the events of that day and the aftermath. The pop music, much of which is even older than the ten year shift, can perhaps evoke in the listener the phrase “the banality of evil”, but is that not too a projection on the part of the listener? In many ways the whole enterprise is — memory, nostalgia, loss and false memories. I noted in my review of the concert eventually released as EL007 that Keith was playing with, complementing, even reinforcing the classical pieces he used as his framing device. With September the Dvorak is likewise not directly abused or deconstructed; the piece isn’t about the Dvorak. Instead it is held up in contrast, wistfully, as an exemplar of a world that never was, that can not be except in our imaginations and channeled into our art. And perhaps even there that world is lost to us. False memories of a world that never was, a world for which we feel such an intense loss and are nearly immobilized by our nostalgia.
My listening has been highly backloaded this year; I spent much of year on a cross country bicycle tour and when I returned to Washington State there was a lot to listen to. This set came out while I was on tour and was one of the first things I acquired upon my return. I never listen to headphones when I’m bicycling because apart from being patently unsafe it puts you at a remove from the environment and denies one a a true pleasure in my mind: listening to the sounds that you are immersed in. One who’s ears are open hears a lot and if there is one thing I’ve learned over my years of listening to experimental music is how to piece together disconnected sounds into an immersive experience. This ability has meant that my relationship with field recordings is somewhat complicated. I’ve worked with them myself for a decade now as detailed in this post on World Listening Day and I of course love many recordings that. I tend to feel that field recordings can make great material and in certain cases can stand on their own, but are often used lazily or as a type of cultural tourism.
Toshiyua Tsunoda has long been a favorite musician, one of the few who is able to release “pure” field recordings that are absolutely captivating. This skill is akin to photography in that a skillful photog can make a piece of art out of the same scene that your average shooter can not merely with camera placement, framing and working with the available light. A field recordist can control mic placement, when to start and when to stop the recording and some bare settings on their recorder. Both a photographer and a field recordist can apply effects, edits, overlays and the like upon a finished piece but it is then no longer “pure”. I for one don’t have much of a problem of this impure results, but it is a different thing, use the recordings as “material” as opposed to as a thing in and of itself. Michael Pisaro in his compositions often uses field recordings as material and also as an ‘environment’ in which his compositions take place (akin to the notion behind my “out of doors” series). The combination of these two musicians was something I was highly anticipating and I have to say I was not let down.
This set has been hard for me to write about, it has a presence and immediacy that just seems to exist. It is hard to talk in the same way that field recordings can be hard to talk about, but this is much more a piece of music. I haven’t seen much written about it, essays or statements from the artists and the reviews I’ve seen have seemed to share the difficulties that I have. Simply describing the sounds used, or guessing at them, talking about Pisaro’s contributions versus Tsunoda’s and all of that just seems of little merit. I was immediately captivated by this set and it immediately became my favorite thing I heard this year. As I began to catch up on other releases and acquired some new ones, nothing ever did displace this though the previous and the following releases joined it as my favorite music from this year. So really all I feel I can say about this, is that you need to hear it. It is absolutely engaging and interesting and challenging and musical. Perhaps my favorite thing from two artists of whom I like many, many things. I’ll have to think about that some – I do like so much from these two. But this is certainly the collaboratively project I’ve like the best from these two.
Morton FeldmanMusic for Piano and Strings volume 2 (Matchless Recordings) performed by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet
The first volume of the this three volume set from Matchless Recordings was a favorite release from last year and I fully expect volume three to make next years list. But volume two is certainly going to be my favorite of the three. I wrote at length in this post, For Morton Feldman, about my love of Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello and this particular recording of it. Simply having a recording of this piece, given at the pace it requires, from John Tilbury, my favorite interpreter of Feldman is enough to put this right at the top of this years favorites. I won’t write more of this particular piece – see the linked post if you want my thoughts and history with the piece.
Patterns in a Chromatic Field is the other piece on this DVD which is also given the best performance of this piece I’ve heard. Now my relationship with this piece is complicated. I’ve listened to it many times in two other versions. The first of these was performed by Charles Curtis (cello) and Aleck Karis (piano) released on Tzadik. Curtis is an excellent cello player and I think his work here is top drawer. This piece launches right into it with a frantic, sickly cello line as the piano plays big bass clusters. Shorter realizations of this piece find this initial cello part too frantic the piano part rushed. Now it is not supposed to be languid but even just a few extra minutes can let this breath and let that opening not dominate the piece.
I soon moved on the version of the piece released much earlier on hat[now]ART as performed by Rohan de Saram (cello) and Marianne Schroeder (piano) which at around 1’45” is the longest version I’ve heard of this piece. No one can accuse this performance of rushing the piece. I dearly love Rohan de Saram’s playing and if I had a dream version of this piece it was with him sawing the cello and John Tilbury tinkling the ivories. While this is a very cello forward piece the piano, as always is the case with Feldman, is vital and the performance demands that ineffable touch. As has been said by myself along with many others, Tilbury has that touch. While I think many are good at performing Feldman, and I’d place the pianists of both of these other performances in that category, few are are great at it. Tilbury is and his magnificent touch is on display here. Even those opening clusters you can hear him pressing down on the keys with a velocity that hovers at some point. There is somehow still a softness to it amidst the big sounds.
Feldman’s string pieces with piano always have an interesting relationship to the piano. From Piano and String Quartet which the piano only place arpeggios to Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello where the strings are like the effects on a prepared piano there is never the attempts at a merged soundworld. The Smith Quartet do an excellent job at all of the string parts and while one may think of Irwin Arditti or Rohan de Saram as string players you’d love to hear in conjunction with John Tilbury I can find no fault in the musicianship here. These three DVD-A sets, which allows these pieces to unfold uninterrupted at around an hour and half each are sure to be considered among the very best realizations of these pieces and absolutely essential for an understanding and appreciation of these great compositions.
I’ve long been a huge fan of Ullmann’s A Catalogue of Sounds (also on Edition RZ) and furthermore enjoyed a string quartet of his recorded by the Arditti’s. But another piece of his, voice, books and FIRE 3 (again on Edition RZ) I consider one of my biggest disappointments of all time. It was because of how much I loved A Catalogue of Sounds – a piece I’d place somewhere on my favorite pieces of all time list – and how much I didn’t care for it. So I really hesitated on picking up this set. This is set of three CDs and Edition RZ stuff is always expensive, so what with the disappointment of the last piece of his they put out it was hard to take the risk. But good notices came in from people whose opinions I respect, people who also love A Catalogue of Sounds, and ErstDist was selling it for a quite reasonable sum so I decided to take the chance.
“Loud music forgoes the subtleties of perceptible sound.” -Bernd Leukert, from the liner notes
Of course it turned out to be fantastic, probably another set tied for the top of the list. But I just haven’t had enough time to come to terms with all of the music herein to honestly make that clam. The music is much closer in to A Catalogue of Sounds, especially on discs 2 and 3 – low dynamics, tentative brittle scrapes and percussive bits even some beautiful voice tones on disc three – the first use of voice I’ve liked from Ullmann. Disc one is pretty different with two shorter pieces instead of the disc length pieces of the other two discs. It is (of course) still pretty low dynamics, but much more varied, with a few louder interjections. The three discs are chronological with disc 1 featuring pieces from 1989 to 1993, disc 2’s single piece written between 1997-99 and disc 3’s piece the most recent composed between 2004-2007.
“We hear better because we make an effort to hear better.” -Bernd Leukert, from the liner notes
I should say that this is a very handsome set. The black on white on black of the box with it’s (seemingly) cryptic lines and dashes is really a stunner. Inside it continues to impress with the best individual disc sleeves I’ve seen. Each disc is housed in a little booklet with a pocket for the disc, the ever inscribed with disc number the same fragmented letterset of the box cover (and the Edition RZ composer series in general) and the interior featuring an image from the score. The back contains the textural information – title, year, performers et al – each disc like an individual Edition RZ release. Really well done and by far the nicest traditional release I purchased these year.
“I can’t imagine any music upon which the shadow of a thousand years does not fall and which does not, in turn, itself cast shadows.” -Jacob Ullmann, from the liner notes
The set comes with very nice liner notes by Bernd Leukert which discuses much of the notions and material of each of these pieces as well as notions on Ullmanns goals and ideas. With the little amount of time I’ve had with the set I’m going to beg off on any further writing on it. Read these liner notes for better information than that I can provide at this moment. I’ll end by simply saying that I love the music on this set; I have listened to it a lot since getting it and it will need a lot more listens. Maybe I’ll try to write more about it at a latter date, but just thinking about trying to write something for A Catalogue of Sounds, which I’ve been listening to for half a decade I suspect I’ll never really know what to say. Perhaps that says enough.
In the spring of 2010 I had the good fortune to be able spend four days in Boston attending the Christian Wolff at NEC events. Keith Rowe was there to perform several pieces and among these was a duo improvisation with Christian Wolff. This was a pretty short (though wonderful, read about it here) performance, 10-15 minutes and thus at the AMPLIFY 2001 their duo was able to be billed as their “first full length” performance. This CD of course is the document of that performance; perhaps the performance I was most unhappy to have missed in 2012. At the 2010 meeting I had truly wished for the performance to go on at length but it seemed that Wolff tends to prefer a shorter statement. In the performance of Edges, along with Rowe and NEC students, which is a graphic piece where you move through the material at your own discretion he was among the first, if not the first, to do so. So it is interesting to hear him improvising, in a situation with very little cover, for around 40 minutes.
Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff at NEC
Christian of course played with AMM during their most innovative and unruly period, concerts that could go on for two or more hours, so I really never doubted that he would rise to the challenge. He operates here similarly to his performance of Edges (which was indeed written with AMM in mind) moving through various gestures and simply allowing more space, more deliberation in them. Keith is operating in his recent, more more pared down mode – which I feel is the the only time in his long career that he has bent toward the prevailing aesthetic as opposed to pioneering it. Of course one could argue that he’d pioneered it with AMM back in the 60s and it is simply a return to the form for him. And yet it is the prevailing aesthetic in the circles in which he is best known and he had not moved to embrace it until pressed to. However once Keith moved in this direction I think he really showed how it should be done. That is he lets the silences be silences whereas I think most ‘silencers’ push the silence around (to paraphrase old Morty). The spaciousness and deliberation of both of the performers here works quite well, as does Christian seemingly moving through his gestures Edges style. Keith very slowly, at a pretty low volume, works with a few textures with again much space between them. The more upfront gestures seem to mostly come from Christian, again evoking Edges (one of the symbols is to make a loud noise). In fact considering Keith’s excellent and very subdued version of Edges on the excellent Christian Wolff double CD on Edition RZ from last year, this really could just be an unannounced duo performance of the piece. Thus you end up with a piece similar to the late Cage Number Pieces in which the events elide due to individual variations of choosing spaces. A wonderfully taught piece, with sounds from the Stone and the City nearly on equal footing with the performers own. Without a doubt the most engaging bit of duo improv (a diminishing genre in these circles) I heard this year.
This year was the John Cage Centenary and there was many great Cage releases and re-issues put out this year. Too many for me to keep track of or acquire all of (I really regret not hearing the four CD set of Etudes Australes performed by Sabine Liebner for instance) but good to see both in recordings and concerts Cage’s legacy seriously tackled. Among the most interesting of all the releases is this historical document of John Cage and David Tudor in Japan. The impact of their tour was described as John Cage Shock which was used as the title for this three CD set.
In this tour Cage championed new music beyond his own with pieces from Christian Wolff and Karlheinz Stockhausen being performed along with pieces from Japanese composers Toru Takemitsu and Toshi Ichiyangai. What is most interesting to me about this set is that it documents further use of David Tudor’s Amplified Piano that was so stunning on his realization of Variations II. Volume 1 of this set includes another version of that piece, shorter and not quite as powerful but more crunchy and even more noisy at times – A nice addition to the version available on Edition RZ.. This colume also includes a great version of Takemitsu’s Corona for Pianists and a Wolff’s Duo for Pianist & Violinst. All three of this pieces are excellent and this is I think easily the most essential disc in the set.
The amplified piano can also be heard on volume 2 in the realization of Cage’s 26’55.988″ for 2 Pianists & a String Player. Alas this performance is marred in my opinion by the interjections of Yoko Ono (whom I can like just fine in other contexts). As the other piece on volume 2 is Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X which is a piece I for one don’t care much for, I find volume 2 to only be of historical interest. The goods return with volume 3 which opens with a great, noisy realization from Cage of his 0’00”. Music for Piano #7 from Ichiyangi, a graphic score that Tudor interpreted with sudden and spaced out interjections on the piano while various electronic and concrete sounds are projected. Interesting to hear with some great sounds but not a piece I’m going to play a lot. The disc also includes the rather indifferent and unmemorable Composition II for 2 Pianos composed by Micheal von Biel.
Musically the whole set is pretty mixed. I would have been satisfied with Variations II,0’00”, the Takemitsu and the Wolff which could have fit on a single disc. But the set is quite nice with folde out liner notes in English and Japanese each with a nice sized picture or two on them. The set I bought also came with three postcard size photographs of Cage and Tudor from the tour. The document of the performances that created Cage Shock in Japan is certainly of a lot of interest for Cage enthusiasts along with those interested in 20th Century composition and the development of Live Electronics. While I may not connect with every piece I certainly value this entire set.
Morton FeldmanCrippled Symmetry: at June in Buffalo (Frozen Reeds) performed by the Feldman Soloists: Eberhard Blum, Nils Vigeland, and Jan Williams
While this may have been John Cage’s centenary year, his fellow NY School composer Morton Feldman received a number of fantastic releases this year as well. Few were better than this historical document of the Feldman Soloists – a group of musicians who performed Feldman’s work during his lifetime – performing Crippled Symmetry in Buffalo NY in June of 1983.
This turned out to be one of the best performances that we had ever given together. The rare and indescribable “magic moment” of occasion and ambience seems to have inspired us.” -Eberhard Blum writing on this performance.
I often turn to Morton Feldman to listen to as I fall asleep. I’ve long been burdened by insomnia and putting on music as I go to bed often leads to me listening to the entire thing before eventually falling into slumber. Some nights though I fall asleep relatively quickly and thus I like music that is both soft and gentle but that is worth one’s attention. Feldman has long been in that category for me and thus he is often on my night stereo. This set has gotten a huge amount of play in that regard and thus I’ve listened to this as much as anything this year. Of course it has also been played numerous times without the hope for sleep being involved and it is just an absolute stunner. I have two other versions of this piece including one by this very same ensemble released on Hat. I’ve played these other versions many times over the years, but the energy and vitality of this live performance is just unmatched.
Compilations are almost always mixed affairs and this is no exception. A USB memory stick with ten uncompressed recordings from people and groups who performed at or otherwise involved with the Dotolim venue in Seoul South Korea. The memory stick itself is quite cute: a little plastic square with plain text of the title and different colored rubber covers on the USB jack. Definitely my favorite bit of packaging from this year. Once you plug it into your computer you can run in your web browser and html page that serves as index and allows you to play the individual audio and the one video file. Of course one can just as easily copy the files over to your computer and play them with the device of your choice which was the method I chose.
The set features five solos from Joe Foster, Kevin Parks, Jason Kahn, Tetuzi Akiyama and Ryu Hankil’s solos. I really dug those from Foster, Parks, Kahn and Hankil but found the Akiyama rather short and slight. There are noisier pieces from Astronoise and Transistorhead that didn’t do much for me at all, but of course your mileage may vary there. But to me the highlight of the set was the quartet of Hong Chulki, Choi Joonyong, Joe Foster & Jin Santa and the duo of Olaf Hochherz & Jamie Drouin of whom I was previously only minimally familiar The quartet with its fluttery metallic sounds, rotated metal, crumpled amplifications and spaciousness feels like a lot of familiar ideas pushed one step beyond flirting with a structureless structure and is just completely riveting. The Drouin and Hochherz almost sounds like a duo of Sachiko M & Sachiko M with the pure tone and the fluttery side of her work playing together along with a sprinkling of the contact mic she sometimes deploys. Yet the context and the structure of this piece is all it’s own and there are sounds that Sachiko doesn’t try for. Thus it is a rare exploration into that soundworld and one I found completely captivating.
My personal copy of the set
In a period where composition seems to be leading the way, at least capturing the bulk of the attention, improvisation is alive and strong in Korea. There is a lot of risk in the work coming from there and it often doesn’t entirely succeed. But the risk is necessary and the payoff is high. If one’s attention isn’t solely on composed work at this juncture you can do no better than to tune your ears to the small but thriving scene in Korea.
The series of pieces named fields have ears represent my attempts to come to compositional terms with different notions of “fields”: how we hear them, how they might hear themselves, and what there is to hear.
– Michael Pisaro, from the aforementioned blog post.
I happened to be at the August 2011 performance of the the piece for guitar and sine waves in Seattle, (and met Michael in person for the first time as well) which I quite enjoyed and is interesting to contemplate in relation to this later version of the piece, in which the Seattle performance is incorporated. After that performance I picked up the realizations of the related pieces released on Another Timbre, which records several different iterations of the piece from several different ensembles. This I have to say is also a quite enjoyable disc and that I really liked the different realizations herein. These pieces have a lot more in common with the live performance I witnessed in their spare structure and delicacy which makes this disc an ideal companion for this new recording and along with the textual material allows the listener to really engage with this piece and it’s history.
One thing I’ve found is that is a lot of the Wandelweiser and related musics work far better in live performance than recorded. That is the music seems to be activated by their surroundings and since they often use space and silence these surroundings are oft given quite a prominence of place. I think that Pisaro has been the most successful of these related groups of musicians at translating his pieces to the recorded medium primarily because, I suspect, he takes the medium in account. That is the pieces released are often more layered, incorporate field recordings or specially take the limitations and differences of playing back a piece into account. Whereas a live recording of a performance such as the one I experienced in Seattle might seem slight or overly thin this really is a limitation of open air recording versus the listening experience. The way that we shift our focus from all the sounds that surround us and the effects of the space from two ears separated by the skull is quite different from what can be recorded. The listener constructs the piece as much as the muscian and the environment. It is this that I think is the difference between the versions of fields have ears: in the realization of (6) for the Gravity Wave disc Pisaro layered together different performances and recordings of various versions of the piece and added some site specific field recordings. This takes advantage of that effect, that John Cage understood so well with all of his simultaneous performances, happenings and “musicircuses”, of the layered event. The brain automatically fits sounds (and images too – watch any video the sound off and the music of your choice playing and note out it “syncs” up) together and creates it’s own context. For is this not how we experience sound all the time in nature?
So what began as something like a well-regulated garden became a space filled with all kinds of material, now resembling a rather unruly city park.” -Michael Pisaro, from the fields have ears (6) liner notes.
John CageSonatas & Interludes, James Tenney,Piano (hat[now]ART)
The John Cage piece that even those who don’t like John Cage enjoy. This relatively early (1946-48) piece, one of the last before Cage had fully embraced chance operations, is one of the pinnacle of Cage’s prepared piano works. This piece listened to in it’s entirety, develops as it goes along with a gentle tension and release and a wonderful percussive aspect that more fully explores the prepared piano than any other of Cage’s pieces to utilize the instrument. This is the most recorded of Cage’s pieces and is widely available from the original performance by Maro Ajemian to my personal favorite by John Tilbury. With so many versions out there one may wonder why it is this one is essential to add to one’s collection. The answer is that James Tenney, a fellow composer in the experimentalist tradition, adds much to one’s appreciation and understanding of this piece with his realization. Tenney heard Cage himself performing this piece at the age of 16 and that turned his head enough that he pursued music along with science and engineering. These dual interests informed Tenney’s experimentalism – his scores often worked with acoustical properties and explored mathematical functions. Furthermore he performed the Sonatas & Interludes throughout his life and this familiarity, expertise and love of the piece combined with his engineers precision in the preparations lead to a faithful yet unique realization. The preparations, which Cage detailed in his typically precise yet idiosyncratic way (for instance he uses measurements for the placement of the preparations that are based on a specific piano instead of being scale independent), were hand selected by Tenney based on he thought it should sound. So while he followed Cage’s instructions his primary driver was the sound. His performance was informed by his compositional interests in sound and relationships of sound and thus he performed the pieces a bit more brusquely than is typical. Listening to this with an ear toward the interactions of the sounds as opposed to the melodic and rhythmic is truly rewarding. While I may turn to the Tilbury two out of three times this version will be that other play. Beyond the historical interest of the Maro Aiemian recording these two recordings of the piece will suffice.
These six records are all as different as can be and are all ones I enjoyed quite a bit. The Kinoshita/Murayama (which I especially love the cover) I perhaps received too recently to really fully absorb. While I think that Kinoshita’s work is marvelous here I found that Murayama, while in the main adding very interesting and compatible sounds sometimes lets loose with sounds from his drums that pull me out. Too on the nose as it were. Overall solid and worth hearing, but just shy of greatness I feel.
Beuger has often left me cold and while I have enjoyed several of his compositions, it is this one that I feel I have truly connected with. There is a lot more diversity to the sound and dynamics here and a playfulness – perhaps brought by the performers – that I’ve found lacking in his work. This disc is definitely recommended for those that may have shared my skepticism, but also for those who feel like I do that Wandelweiser stuff is best live and in recordings that capture that aspect.
Neumann and Jones put out the only other outstanding duo improv I heard this year. Admittedly I didn’t seek out everything and thus you can take that for what it’s worth, but I heard enough clips and read enough reviews that I only bought things that I felt would appeal. And this one surely did. I’ve enjoyed both of these musicians work for years and I was really excited to hear this recording. I was a little disconcerted by reports of singing and text recitation which is often overly affected and earnest in experimental contexts but this small bit of that here works effectively. Lafkas’ large ensemble piece is a sprawling work that drones and chatters but always seems well considered. Another disc I got too late to absorb fully but one I’ll definitely return to many times.
At the end of my cross country bicycle tour my thoughts increasingly turned to the music of Codiene, the “slow core” band from the early 90s that were a mainstay of my later college years. On arriving in Bar Harbor I found out that they put out a set including their three albums along with three CDs of unreleased material (and also toured briefly). Quelle Coincidence! Owning the originally albums I didn’t feel much need to buy the whole set (plus I no longer have a turntable) but I was delighted to find I could purchase the unreleased material from iTunes. And so I did. These tracks, plus the original albums once I was back home, got many, many plays.
It’s been a great year for the New York School with absolutely vital discs featuring John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff released. Happily Earle Brown wasn’t neglected either with Wergo putting out this top notch set performed by my second favorite pianist Sabine Liebner. This set has piano versions of all of the expected “hits” plus many more, much more obscure pieces. All of these absolutely beautifully and creatively rendered by Lieber. Brown’s graphic and open works demand this creativity and likewise require many versions to get any sort of handle upon. Thus this is a most welcome addition to my collection of Brown realizations.
I’ve moved away from trying to hear everything released in a given year and to dramatically reduce the purchasing of objects in general. Instead I pay close attention to what people who have similar tastes are really liking and strategically buy that. Thus this year I’ve bought less than I have in years but really liked most of what I’ve gotten (not 100% of course). Alastair Wilson’s excellent radio programme Admirable Restraint has been a major help in winnowing down the field without resorting to downloads (of which I’ve gotten very few this year). I haven’t made a list of favorites in a while since I’ve felt I’ve not been that informed, but while I was reading the various one’s published this year I made notes of the ones that I had and did like and I ended up with a surprising amount. I’d felt that this was a pretty weak year for improvisation in particular but even so there was a a bunch I did like a lot and listen to a lot. It is not with some reluctance I admit, but here’s what I really liked from what I managed to hear this year.
I’ve put these into two categories: those that are structured through compositional strategies (including live electronics) and those that are of a more improvisational structure. In between is a set that straddles the two. Each list is organized by release date as I remember it with no other implied ordering. I say a few (very few for me) words about each in a paragraph per section.
Keith Rowe & Christian Wolff perform at NEC
More Composed/Live Electronics
V/A Music for Merce (1952-2009) (New World Records)
Group OngakuMusic of Group Ongaku (Seer Sound Archive) [reissue]
Michael PisaroClose constellations and drum on the ground (Gravity Wave)
Eliane RadigueTransamorem-Transmortem (Important)
Michael Johnsen/Pascal BattusBitche Session ( Organized Music from Thessaloniki)
Michael Shannon Sensa Atmospheres (Autumn Records)
Morton FeldmanOrchestra (Mode)
Christian WolffKompositionen 1950-1972 (Edition RZ) Eliane Radigue Geelriandre/Arthesis (Senufo)
The release of the year was without a doubt Music for Merce, and the lack of seeing it mentioned out and about is a sign that releases that arrive at the end of the previous year/beginning of the next often get overlooked. This epic box set was technically put out in the last week of December 2010 (a December 26th release date IIRC) but, perhaps barring some NYC critics, no-one had it in hand until closer to mid January 2011. While certainly mixed in content (I covered it at length in these posts) the David Tudor material alone would have made this the release of the year for me. Add in all the vital historical performances of Cage, Wolff, Feldman not to mention a number of new to me pieces and its significance is inarguable. Released at the beginning of the last tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company it is an amazing tribute. Close on in January was an LP edition of the very hard to find (though easy to download) Music of Group Ongaku which I’d wanted a real copy of for ages. Group Ongaku can be argued to be a free improvisation outfit like AMM but I think they can be more accurately described as following certain ideas of experimental composition to a logical conclusion. Absolutely essential music though for those interested in either of those areas. This was another big year for Michael Pisaro, who beyond having numerous releases on various labels began his own label, Gravity Wave, in conjunction with Jon Abbey and Yuko Zama of Erstwhile fame. Six releases this year was a bit too much for me to keep up with, but late in the year I picked up Close constellations and drum on the ground which, even on only a few listens, I’d rate as top tier Pisaro (my all time favorite Hearing Metal has been followed up by two more discs which I have yet to hear, but do have high hopes for). This piece has some of the density that pieces like July Mountain come to, but I find it a lot less ponderous and seems to come from a place of different diversity. A nice slice of fresh live electronics from Michael Johnsen and Pascal Battus was quite welcome as a cassette/digital release that has quite an interesting texture as Johnsen’s Tudor-esque live electronics are often restrained into sputters and bleats while hums, momentary washes and the like arise from Battus’ (a new name to me) use of electromagnetic pickups. There were two archival Eliane Radigue releases from this year (three actually; there was a vinyl only one I didn’t get) both of interest, with Transamorem-Transmortem being the standout. I found this to be a completely uncompromising and challenging and absolutely worth hearing. Perhaps not top three Radigue, but up there and essential for those who appreciate her work.
Christian WolffKompositionen 1950 - 1972 (Edition RZ)
The end of the year brought two top draw releases of New York School composers – Christian Wolff Kompositionen 1950-1972 and Morton Feldman Orchestra. The Wolff, from the ever excellent Edition RZ with it’s mix of essential recordings of archival, historical unreleased and new performances of his pieces would rate as one of my three favorite releases from this year. It includes absolute vital performances from David Tudor of early Wolff compositions as well as a clean digital version of his excellent solo take on For 1,2 or 3 people, on multi-tracked baroque organ. A new recording of Edges, from Keith Rowe sounding as if he’d just come from his session with Radu Malfatti contrasts with the historically interesting and fascinating version from Gentle Fire. Mode’s eleventh volume of it’s Morton Feldman series, Orchestra, with three heretofore unreleased pieces (and a rather unfortunate orchestral arrangement of Intersection I), including the sublime Voice and Instruments. I have never been much of a fan of Feldman’s vocal orientated work and was surprised by how taken I was by this. This piece with its restrained and simple vocal lines floating above a very Feldman-ish orchestration is how I’d always imagined his vocal pieces would be, but never seem to be. Orchestra, the last and longest piece on this disc from 1976 feels like a shorter version of the longer pieces he was beginning to compose at this time. The way the instruments come in and out, layering at times but few playing at any given time, makes one wish he had explored a larger ensemble like this at greater length. Geelriandre/Arthesis I’ve only had for a few days, and initially wasn’t too taken with it. But as I keep listening it has grown on me enough that I know I’ll keep playing it. The first tracks features prepared piano above a fairly static tone from Radigue’s Arp. This added a degree of tonality that I’m just not really expecting from Radigue, acoustics like that layered over electronics is something I do love and have worked with myself. The second track is more typical Radigue from this time, though played on a Moog Modular. Not the most memorable of tracks and not as unusual as the first track, it is still vintage Radigue.
Keith Rowe, Jon Abbey and Radu Malfatti (photo by Yuko Zama)
Comp, Comp, Improv Radu Malfatti/Keith RoweÎ¦ (Erstwhile)
Stradding the divide between composed and improvised is Î¦ from Keith Rowe and Radu Malfatti released on Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile Records. This is certainly the premier release of music of music recorded in 2011 (at least that I heard). An ambitious three disc set that contains two discs of compositions from Keith Rowe, Radu Malfatti, Cornelius Cardew and Jurg Frey with a third disc of improvisations. The concept of this album was a disc of compositions selected by the performers – Cardew from Rowe and Frey from Malfatti, a disc of the performers own compositions, concluding with a disc of improvisations. This was all beautifully recorded in Amann Studios in Vienna over several days. Conceptually I think this really works, though personally I’ve never much cared for Jurg Frey’s compositions and alas this one hasn’t changed my mind too much. It is more interesting sonically as Rowe cares about sound and Malfatti tends toward an interest in structure and considers the sounds secondary. This aspect of his work in many ways makes his own compositions somewhat interchangeable which makes his composition on this set, nariyamu, rather more interesting due to Rowe’s participation and choice of sound. Cornelius Cardew’s Solo with Accompanist is quite nice though I feel that Malfatti somewhat gives the score somewhat short shift. Keith Rowe’s Pollock ’82 which he made a special version for Malfatti is I think the gem of the composed section. The limited material for Malfatti is ideal for how he is going to play anyway and Rowe’s (somewhat) more busy material contrasts nicely. The third disc of improvisations though is the highlight of the set. If just this disc had been released it’d have been among the best improv I’d heard this year (again not saying much) but as it would have to be informed by the previous days of recording getting to hear the whole development is really a tour de force and in my mind justifies the triple set. Even in this improvisation the sound world is Malfatti’s world with Rowe, while more active, rarely breaking out of that mode with even his (unusually spare) radio usage being unobtrusive. In this collaboration it was clear that Malfatti wasn’t going to move at all and thus it was Rowe that had to do so. I’ve always thought of Rowe as an uncompromising musician and while the results here are fantastic I can’t help but wonder what would have transpired had he not acquiesced quite so much to Malfatti’s intransigence. That being said this is a fascinating bit of improv, tentative seeming but utterly assured, fragile at times but always with a core of strength that comes from two musicians who are absolutely at the top of their game. Rowe may have moved toward Malfatti, but it isn’t really an unfamiliar area for him, not really to any experimentalist (of which I wouldn’t categorize Malfatti) and to these ears even in moving toward another’s position he owned it.
Takuji Kawai, piano
Kevin parks + Alice Hui-Sheng Chang Confessions of a middle school guidance counselor (homophoni)
MIMEOWigry (Bolt/Monotone) Taku Unami/Takahiro Kawaguchi Teatro Assente (Erstwhile)
Tetuzi Akiyama/Takuji Kawai Transition (Ftarri/Improvised Music From Japan)
Toshimaru NakamuraMaruto (Erstwhile) Keith RoweConcentration of the Stare (bottrop boy)
Graham StephensonDefiantly Not (Pilgrim Talk) JérÃ´me Noetinger/Will GuthrieFace Off (Erstwhile)
Keith Rowe/John TilburyE.E. Tension and Circumstance (Potlatch)
As for music of a more improvised nature from this year there was a surprising amount that appealed to me beyond the third disc of the Malfatti/Rowe collaboration of which I’ve already written. The duo of Kevin Parks and new to me Alice Hui-Sheng Chang released by the ever vital Homophoni net label was an early favorite. Parks, familiar from his collaborations with Joe Foster works with guitar and electronics here, utilizing thrumming tones and on the guitar some gentle eBowing and simple melodic lines whilst Hui-Sheng Chang uses her voice in an abstract and often guttural way. I’m even more picky w/r/t vocal work in improv than I am on composed work and have only really been able to get behind the abstract work of Ami Yoshida. Hui-Sheng Chang works in a similar vein but sets herself apart from other imitators by restricting her vocalizations to narrow range and not falling into camp as so many others do. A piece of this length tends to have its ups and downs and there are certainly moments in this piece that skirts the edge (and probably could have been slightly shorter), but to me it is exciting to hear new voices in this area and it is quite strong overall. MIMEO is reliably hit or miss but this double LP recorded in a church in Poland is an unexpected case of the former. Avoiding the mud that often arises from such a large group without relying on super restrictive conceptualism it displays a restraint that is often missing from MIMEO recordings. Teatro Assente deserves an essay written about it but I have to say that while I find it intriguing and like it well enough to list it here I never really wanted to listen to it much. I sort of think that what Taku Unami is up to now requires constant movement and I don’t think this album moved quite fast enough for me. His duo with Annette Krebs from last year, also on Erstwhile was a top favorite and it really has held up. This, while certainly it’s own thing, just doesn’t feel like it moved far enough for me though it is definitely of interest and well worth hearing. The most interesting parts are completely confounded and engaging and really can one ask for more than that? Tetuzki Akiyama’s work I’ve found mixed – when he works with angular little constructions with acoustic or electric guitars I’m completely captivated. When he plays his aggressive boogie stuff, much less so. Transition, a duo with the pianist Takuji Kawai fortunately has him playing in the former mode and even better with piano that works almost as a continuation of his sound. Though sometimes that sound comes from the piano and it is Akiyama who fits right in with it, even when he contrasts with it. Exciting to hear another pianist working in this area, especially one with fantastic touch that doesn’t immediately evoke John Tilbury. His use of preparations add a bit of a percussive element at times and pushes the sound world into a alien territory in others. In a way it reminds me of my favorite chamber Feldman piece, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello in which the strings evoke preparations on the melodic lines. Here an actual prepared piano resonates Akiyama’s figures and broken melodies.
Toshimaru NakamuraMaruto (ErstSolo)
Toshimaru Nakamura is one of the most interesting musicians working today and yet he has rarely shined outside of collaborations. This is not for lack of trying, his discography on IMJ lists eight solo albums and many more solo pieces have appeared on compilations. But under the pressure of being the second only artist as part of Erstwhile Records ErstSolo series Nakamura recorded Maruto that fits well with the best of his solo work (Side Guitar , Dance Music ) and shows a steady direction of development. Varied without falling into the cul-de-sacs that mark the lesser works, a part of his body work yet seeming to have a restless pushing past it, it is a striking work and a fitting addition to the ErstSolo series. Concentration of the Stare documents a solo performance that Keith Rowe did in the Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas in 2007. Rothko has been a huge influence on Rowe and I can’t think of a better performer to put in this space. The performance is of course four years old and does feel like Keith’s work from that period but it is an excellent performance that captures much of the overbearing, overwhelming nature of Rothko’s work. I’ve long thought that Graham Stephenson was the most promising musician among his generation but this has primarily been based on short works for comps and his duo work with David Barnes. Defiantly Not pretty much confirms my impressions as far as I’m concerned and it’s a real pleasure to finally have a full album of his to really delve into. Graham has to my mind really found a voice and has used his influences as a springboard instead of being weighted down by them. Using his trumpet and simple amplification (perhaps some objects or mutes) he gets varied sounds that can seem to evoke some of the other modern trumpeters but always goes somewhere different. The intensity at times is all enveloping and hints toward a wider focus than perhaps other solo trumpeters. By the end of the album it feels that he has thrown off any influences and is exploring a sound world of his own. There is a sense of structure that a lot of improvisors lack that you can detect most readily in solo work and which here I find fascinating. Definitely looking forward to hearing continuing work from one clearly just getting started. Face Off, a late release from Erstwhile, is definitely the best piece of music I’ve heard yet from Will Guthrie. His percussion work is all over the place from pure working with sound to bursts of energy that evoke EFI to some moments that are unique to him. All of this along with the dense tape machinations of Noetinger makes for a constantly engaging disc. This requires more listens for me to really say much more (again a late release and I’ve gotten a bunch of releases late) but what’s important to me is that I want those additional listens.
John Tilbury & Keith Rowe E.E. Tension and Circumstance (Potlatch)
I only just got E.E. Tension and Circumstance and I have to say it is all I hoped for and more. I rate their duo on Erstwhile, Duos for Doris, as one of my all time favorite piece of music and felt that the likelihood that they wouldn’t be playing together again after the fallout of the AMM breakup was perhaps the greatest tragedy of that sad event. So the fact that they were playing together at all I thought a triumph and for it to be so strong miraculous. Keith has really moved a long way from where he was in 2003 and Tilbury I think rises to this challenge admirably. There are these dense parts in this that Tilbury seems to provide a floor for with muted keystrokes, or thumps on the piano body. Keith here seems to use the more spare language that he has been investigating of late as simply another tool in the kit as opposed to an end in itself and reaches deep into his bag to pull out continuous sounds that nod toward past work but seem light years away from it. Too me this release underscores what I felt was lacking in Keith’s duo with Malfatti – both musicians move and stand firm are uncompromising but toward the music not toward any sort of personal preference. I probably haven’t quite heard this enough yet but in the end I’d say this is my favorite improv of the year.
2010 releases I only heard this year, that are favorites Bill TaylorMusica (Cornelyn) Michael Pisaro A Wave and Waves (Cathnor) Javier SÃ¡inzSilva Calendonia (Siubhal)
“Bandoneon ! uses no composing means; when activated it composes itself out of its own composite instrumental nature.” – David Tudor, from the program notes (5)
There are a number of David Tudor compositions that are unavailable to hear, but arguably the most important historically is Bandoneon ! (A combine) . Created and performed as part of the 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering this has now been made available for the first time as part of the E.A.T. – 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering DVD series (which can be purchased via Microcinema). I’ve written about 9 Evenings before in context of the first two DVDs released in this series and my overview of the series stands. It is probably worth quoting from the introduction to the primary 9 Evenings archive at the Daniel Langlois Foundation as a reintroduction to the series before examining this specific release:
In 1965, with the help of Robert Rauschenberg, Billy KlÃ¼ver sought the expertise of some 30 engineers at Bell Laboratories (Murray Hills, N.J., U.S.), requesting that they participate in an interdisciplinary project blending avant-garde theatre, dance and new technologies. For the project, artists John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Ã–yvind FahlstrÃ¶m, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Robert Whitman each created an original performance. The artists were paired with the engineers, and together they produced the technical components used on stage by the participants (dancers, actors, musicians). The event was originally intended to be presented as part of the Stockholm Festival of Art and Technology in 1966. But when the festival’s American program was cancelled, Billy KlÃ¼ver moved the event to the 69th Regiment Armory (New York, N.Y., U.S.), where it ran as 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering from October 13 to 23, 1966.
As per the two earlier releases in the series the DVD is comprised of four sections: The standard introduction designed by Robert Rasuchenberg, the performance of the piece, a documentary and concluding credits and acknowledgments. The performance is of course of primary interest to me and I have to say it is quite spectacular. The video begins with Tudor and several engineers coming on to the stage and hooking things up and getting things ready. After a couple of minutes of this Tudor begins to play and I have to say based on all of the Tudor I have heard previously I wasn’t expecting this. Washes of sounding, stuttering out as he squeezes the bellows, layer upon layer of these as the Armory’s 5 -6 second reverberation throws the sound back and forth. The piece keeps building from this initial assault, each components lashed onto the howling structure previously built. After a bit of this four remote controlled sculptures each with its own loudspeaker begins wheeling around, throwing yet more sound all around the space. Meanwhile a video projection system, designed by Lowell Cross, is tracing out abstract shapes, lines and patterns that are being generated in direct response to the music. There are portions of the performance where the density is lower than others but primarily it is a hurricane roar of sound. Even so it is not a featureless wash of sound by any means, it is wholly alien, created not from the expected building blocks of synthesis, but of the bandoneon’s natural sound, feedback, amplification, echo, and tortured electronics. It is fractal like, always revealing more detail and fascinating detail at that, the closer you examine it. But then after just over eight minutes of actual playing it fades away and ends. I personally have a hard time believing that Tudor played for less then ten minutes after all of the effort of setting this up (though I suppose its possible). The Bandoneon ! page for this piece at the Daniel Langlois Foundation concludes with this ambiguous statement: “The length of the performances is not mentioned in the documents that were consulted during the writing of these notes” and as far as my research has gone I can’t determine how long the piece lasted. I had hoped that as they had done on the Variations VII disc they would include the entire piece as a separate audio track, given that they weren’t able to film the entirety of most performances but it is not to be found on this disc. So I don’t know if they have more or not, or how long the performance was or really any more then what we have here. Of course it is hard to not think that just a few years after this performance Tudor is known to have said ““It’s hard to do a piece any more that lasts for less than an hour.”(5)
The documentary portion of this disc is fantastic, the best yet of the three discs released so far. In it it describes how Tudor, always technical, realized that few of the artists were really taking advantage of the Bell Labs engineers and equipment and that he resolved to use everything. The video weaves interviews with engineers, collaborators such as Larry Austin, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma and Lowell Cross describing how Tudor worked up the setup that he used for this performance. Further information on Tudor and his practices and methodologies were gleaned from Merce Cunningham, Matt Rogalsky and many other close collaborators. Gordon Mumma outlines Tudor’s history with the Bandoneon, beginning Tudor seeing Mauricio Kagel perform his piece Pandora’s Box which sparked his interest. He of course learned the instrument and then commissioned friends such as Pauline Oliveros and Gordon Mumma to compose pieces for him. Mumma would later make electronics for Tudor, which Tudor would rework, reverse engineer and reuse for his own systems. All of this, combined with video, with the remote controlled carts and layers of additional electronics, culminated in Bandoneon ! (a combine). The Bandoneon had contact mics on it as well as normal microphones and this were sent to a wide variety of electronic devices. But all highly analog, for instance a device called a Vochrome which was a harmonium in which the sound from the Bandoneon was played which would vibrate the metal tines of each each which would then be used to activate an electronic circuit. So basically a physical device used for spectrum analysis. The documentary fully describes how Lowell Cross worked out his video oscillator out of an old TV set and how Tudor convinced him to make a projection version of it that was used for the performance. The notion of the Combine, a term utilized by Robert Rauschenberg to describe his sculpture/painting hybrids, is absolutely apropos for this piece as it had so many components in both the music but also in the visual aspects. The documentary I think makes pretty clear that Tudor, more so then any other of the artists, really fully realized the goals of the combination of theater and engineering.
Another piece to the Tudor puzzle and another great DVD from the E.A.T. people. While the most interesting performances from the 9 Evenings have now been released, I’ve become so intrigued by the entire project that I am certainly looking forward to the rest of the DVD’s in the series. Hopefully they will continue to come out apace.
Ian Humphries (violin); Darragh Morgan (violin); Nic Pendlebury (viola) ; Deirdre Cooper (cello); John Tilbury (piano)
1. For John Cage  (1:31:14)
2. Piano and String Quartet  (1:29:30)
Almost all Feldman’s music is slow and soft. Only at first sight is this a limitation. I see it rather as a narrow door, to whose dimensions one has to adapt oneself (as in Alice in Wonderland) before one can pass through it into the state of being that is expressed in Feldman’s music. Only when one has become accustomed to the dimness of light can one begin to perceive the richness and variety of colour which is the material of the music. When one has passed through the narrow door and got accustomed to the dim light, one realises the range of his imagination and the significant differences that distinguish one piece from another …
Feldman sees the sounds as reverberating endlessly, never getting lost, changing their resonances as they die away, or rather do not die away, but recede from our ears, and soft because softness is compelling, because an insidious invasion of our senses is more effective than a frontal attack. Because our ears must strain to catch the music, they must become more sensitive before they perceive the world of sound in which Feldman’s music takes place. – Cornelius Cardew(1)
I’ve mentioned many times here and elsewhere that John Tilbury is my favorite interpreter of Morton Feldman’s piano music and the piano music is my favorite of Feldman’s work. The solo piano pieces, especially his last few pieces, are masterpieces but I’d also accord such plaudits to a number of Feldman’s chamber pieces. The Music for Piano and Strings series on Matchless features a number of such pieces and the first volume begins the series incredibly strong with two of his best as well as personal favorite pieces. Feldman often used the piano in his chamber pieces, sometimes in a similar way as to the solo piano pieces, but at other times in rather different ways, using a wider variety of techniques and trading off foreground and background roles with the other instruments. To understand what I mean by this one has to consider how strings are used in these pieces.
When many of these pieces were first performed, Feldman requested that the string players use “˜leather mutes’. However we now have very light and excellent plastic practice mutes available to the same effect, more reliable and easier to use. Another score marking employed by Feldman is an instruction to have the hair on the bows as loose as possible, the aim being that, since the majority of his work is incredibly quiet this is the easiest way to create this dynamic. Ironically, with the resurgence of period performance and easy access to baroque bows, we have performed and recorded this repertoire with these bows. The benefits are multiple and, most importantly for us, the lightness of these bows helps both physically in playing music that can routinely be 80 minutes in length, and musically as their arc-like shape lends well to the wonderful melodic and harmonic contours of Feldman’s string writing. – Darragh Morgan(2)
Darragh Morgan (as well as Cardew above) describe the overall features of softness and sound orientation. For strings as we read above they play with mutes, bowes with loose hair (or Baroque bows as the Smith Quartet rather brilliantly uses) but also “For us, in performing and recording these pieces, we felt that a “˜vibrato free’ style of playing created a type of musical purity akin to Feldman’s own intentions. Of course this also complements John Tilbury’s delicate pianistic touch.“(2) These restrictions seem to be standard among all (or at least the bulk) of Feldman’s pieces for strings. Beyond this, there is how he uses the pitches from the string players, that is the harmony that he chooses to employ. It would take a far greater expert than myself to really breakdown the use of harmony in Feldman’s music but there are some interesting features that reveal themselves from purely listening to the music. When there are multiple string players Feldman utilizes them in multiple ways but one of the most common is to have all the players play as one, each generating a pitch that may form into a chord across the instruments, or they may all play the same note. Some of what he seems to be going for is microtonal, but I suspect not deliberately, more just on the slight imperfection in playing. At other times it will be as if all of the members are playing separately, each doing their own thing with sounds in various pitches coming in and out of the soundfield. In the liner notes for the recent release of Feldman’s Trio on Mode (which I wrote about here) they quote Feldman as saying over the course of a long piece you more or less go through your whole bag of tricks, you try it all and you can hear this in these pieces:
“In writing a long piece, I would make curious moves, but only for the moment. Decisions that I would never think of, say, in composing a twenty-minute composition. You want a piece to be logical? Well, you’re not going to sit down and have a ten-course meal of logic; you’re satisfied with just an hors d’oeuvre, a little logical hors d’oeuvre served to you by a famous waiter! You want a piece to be beautiful? OK, give them a moment of beauty — how much more do you need? So what happens in a long piece is that soner or later you go through the whole parameter of possiblities, and everybody’s going to get something out of it, I’m sure. The form of the piece is more like a novel — there’s plenty of time for everything.” – Morton Feldman (4)
But Feldman doesn’t go through all of the available tricks from musical history, no he goes through all of his tricks. And at times, even in a long piece he’ll severely restrict himself: in Piano and String Quartet the piano only plays arpeggios, for an hour and a half in this recording. Feldman varies the arpeggios throughout the piece, their pacing, the weight of the individual notes the space between the figures, but he’s only using one technique. Of course there is also the strings which sustain this, though they also don’t explore the entire range of his techniques for strings as he does in his String Quartet peices, no it is the interplay of these five instruments in this piece that allows for just restricted material. This for me is what really distinguishes Feldman’s chamber pieces: it is the sound of the instruments playing together, the way that he approaches that seems completely unique.
Feldman’s use of extended string techniques can blur the timbral separation between cello and violin, creating unified sonic events exploring the qualities and possibilities of the combination of instruments – for example, utilizing the resonance of the piano and the sustaining qualities and dynamic control of the strings. – Mode Records Trio page
The above quote from Mode puts so well something I’ve been struggling to describe here and as I said is really to me the essence of Feldman’s chamber work. In the pieces on this disc. The way that a note on the piano dies away and then the dry bowed violin resonates with that decaying sound. The almost organ like tones of a chord built up from all four players of the string quartet playing with that gasping sound of vibrato-less bowing, combined with soft tinkling piano notes slowly revealing themselves as the chord fades away. The Smith Quartet, whom I was not at all familiar with prior to this recording, handle these pieces incredibly well. There is the right softness, dryness of tone and commitment to Feldman’s intentions. The use of the baroque bows to elegantly solve one of Feldman’s conditions to me shows innovation and flexibility and the sonic results prove that this isn’t just for their own benefit, but is the best solution to the problem. I look forward to spending more time with this quartet, first in the rest of the Music for Piano and Strings and then exploring more of their work.
From ancient China there is a description of a vibrato technique: Remarkable is the ting-yin, where the vacillating movement of the finger should be so subtle as to be hardly noticeable. Some handbooks say that one should not move the finger at all, but let the timbre be influenced by the pulsation of the blood in the fingertips pressing the string down on the board a little more heavily than usual.
Such extreme sensitivity of touch is of the essence in a performance of Feldman’s music. In the piano pieces the depressed key is gently eased back to position to minimise the obtrusive sound of the key mechanism, time is allowed for the minutest of harmonics to resound, and at the end of the phrases fingers steal away from the keys noiselessly. – John Tilbury(1)
What more is there to say John Tilbury’s performance of Feldman? Tilbury gives his highest accolades to Cornelius Cardew and David Tudor for their performances of Feldman(1) and I certainly can’t disagree with his assessments of their performances of Feldman’s early pieces. But it is not just for the lack of them having played Feldman’s later pieces that Tilbury is the one I want to hear on these pieces. His touch, his light foot on the sustain pedal (a technique he got from Cardew(3)) his extreme sensitivity to the sound and most of all his deep commitment to these pieces are I think unrivaled. For a long time I’ve wanted to hear the chamber pieces with Tilbury tinkling the ivories and I can’t say how excited and grateful I am that Matchless is putting this set of recordings out. I recall being in Vancouver participating in a workshop with John Tilbury on Cardew’s Treatise(read about this here) and while we were sharing an elevator he was telling an anecdote about playing various Feldman chamber pieces in California. I completely forget what the point of his anecdote was but it involved the playing of For Philip Guston and my one thought at the time was “Why wasn’t this recorded, I want to hear For Philip Guston with John on the piano!”. While the Music for Piano and Strings sets won’t include all of Feldman’s chamber pieces with piano, it certainly contains a large subset of them and among these my absolute favorites.
For John Cage  (1:31:14)
One senses a connection to jazz in Feldman’s subtly emotive chords. And beyond that, in the music’s “touch” and “swing”. The touch is in the minimising of attack (Baroque bows are used on this recording). The swing is in the rhythmic dislocation, a feature from the beginning but pursued most exhaustively in the long works of the last years, For John Cage being a prime example.
– Howard Skempton(5)
This is the third recording of For John Cage that I’ve heard and while I’ve only listen it a few times so far it has quickly become my favorite. For John Cage is scored for piano and violin and thus the piano is of utmost importance. This also is the longest version I’ve heard by far and while this never a priori means it is better in this case I think it is important. I’ve always felt that there was a sense of urgency to the piece (especially in the almost frantic seeming violin in the opening notes) from the other recordings that I have and I always assumed that was an aspect of this composition that was a bit different from much other later Feldman. But with almost twenty-five more minutes to the piece then my previous favorite version of the piece that sense of urgency becomes a lot less frantic. In fact it becomes more typical of the tensions that you find at various times in Feldman’s pieces (amongst all of his tricks as I quoted earlier). There is a variance to the dynamics in Darragh Morgan’s violin that is more superb then anyone else I’ve heard on this material. He’s always at Feldman’s famous ppp but within that dynamic seems to subtly shift the volume all of the time even within a bow stroke. It could be that this is what creates that shimmering quality to the strings that I noted earlier. Tilbury’s piano is at its most bell like here, perhaps just the smallest amount of extra pressure on the sustain adding just a bit more of a ringing character to it. The interplay between the piano and violin is fantastic in this piece, there is a section near the beginning where the piano plays two notes and the violin responds with its own pair of notes in a call and response that comes across more as two timbres of a bird call. In a later section after focusing almost completing in the far upper register of the piano and violin a single low piano key is struck and repeated and those low tone reminds us of the entire range of sound and dynamic and as played here it is so warm and fat that it is like finding a perfect garden in an arid wasteland. These moments are Feldman’s brilliance in composition and the way the sound is thanks to the incredible touch of Tilbury and Morgan not to mention the excellent recording from Sebastian Lexer.
Last year at a performance of Morton Feldman’s For John Cage piece in a church in Huddersfield a car crashed in the road immediately outside the venue entrance. The loud bang was followed by a multitude of sirens and other noise. It seemed to me that at that point the slow, gradually shifting music sped up, the momentary interruption shifting the fine balance of the musicians. For John Cage indeed…
Which of course is about this very performance! He mentioned this again to me in a recent email which sent me looking for this quote to share here. In my reply to his email I said I’d have been tempted to leave those sounds in it being For John Cage after all (which you see Richard echo a bit here) and in his reply he mentioned that Sebastian Lexer had digitally erased all evidence of this from the recording. This is certainly the case and the recording sounds amazing. I can’t say I’ve noticed the slight speed up that Richard mentions, but I did notice at one point that the space suddenly seemed flat, that is to say the natural sound of the instruments reverberating in this space seemed different then it had before. I honestly wasn’t even listening for this when I first noticed it, in fact I was reading a book and my attention suddenly shifted back to the music as it had clearly changed. Not an incredible difference and depending on people sound environment and stereo may not be too noticeable at all but I’m sure this aspect was a bit altered by scrubbing those other ambient sounds. But it is a tremendous job and I’m quite thankful that the effort was made giving us this pristine and incredible version of this piece.
Piano and String Quartet  (1:29:30)
Piano and String Quartet is like breathing; and like dying. The matter is of life and death.
– Howard Skempton(5)
Piano and String Quartet begins with this series of slow arpeggios from the piano, played mostly alone and in between them various short stretches of bowing from the strings, sometimes alone other times in concert. There is more time given to this piece than the other two versions I have (Kronos at ~80′ Ives somewhat short at ~72min) though not dramatically so. But that the extra ten minutes over the Kronos version does slow things down just enough more to really emphasize aspects of the piece – these arpeggios are so spacious and the time allowed for them to decay before the strings come in really lets you hear the resonance of the piano. The piano part is entirely these sustained arpeggios at various tempos, sometimes so slow as to sound like a meandering scale or even isolated single notes. The task of the pianist is to bring these to life, to capture the way that Feldman uses repetition: clearly playing the same thing but with subtle variation so that the structure remains hidden. Mark Swed in his liner notes for the Kronos Quartet/Aki Takahashi recording of this piece puts it perfectly:
Feldman also liked to compare his long pieces to Asian rugs, for which he had a passion. Finding that the most interesting were irregular in their symmetries, he kept his patterns of chords, notes, motives or sounds carefully arrenged so that their repetitions would be reconizable as repetitions, their patterns not discernible, the memory disoriented.” (6)
There seems to almost always be a shimmering sound of this resonance interacting with the beautiful bowing. In a recent post about the Kronos Quartet I mentioned how their sound had a bit more dynamic nature to it then the version of the piece from the Ives Ensemble and I have to say the Smith Quartet also has that ethereal quality to the strings. It clearly isn’t a vibrato technique (unless it is that which is transmitted by the blood itself that Tilbury describes in the quote above) but is clearly some quality of their performance. Perhaps it comes from playing super softly at a level below with the Ives Ensemble does (which is still plenty soft) or perhaps it is subtly shift the volume in the course of a bow stroke, the slight change in pressure reverberating slightly. The strings so often play as one in this piece, the bows slowly arc out in a soft chord, then pausing briefly and then returning over the strings somehow even softer. As the sustain pedal is always pressed on the piano these gentle movements, like breathing really, always begins over this residue of the previously played arpeggio and this interaction is beautiful and endlessly fascinating.
As I reported in the aforementioned Kronos post this was the first Feldman piece I ever heard and I can’t deny that its one of my favorites. Pretty much for the reasons I’ve given above: the piano and the way its used contrasting with the way Feldman uses strings, is just so compelling to me. It’ll take a lot of listens before this approaches the amount I’ve given to the Kronos and Ives versions but the piano is so glorious and the strings are as good as any I’ve heard. This easily catapults right to the top of my favorite recordings of this piece, though the Kronos/Takahashi version is right up there (Feldman more or less wrote the piece with them in mind, it certainly can be thought of as the reference version). This recording I think will reveal how wonderful this piece is to those who may not have previously been as taken with it as it aptly demonstrates this as one of Feldman’s major compositions.
This DVD is a real bounty, it would be akin to two double CD sets of music. While initially I was somewhat resistant to getting music on DVD I have to say I really love hearing the pieces uninterrupted. On this disc the pieces were recorded at DAT quality (48kz/24bit) and while they sound really good, they do not quite approach the amazing sound of the recently reviewed Mode Trio disc which was recorded at DVD-Audio quality (96khz/24bit) as well as in surround. No complaints really from me, these sound superb and I for one am not setup for surround sound anyway. The downside of DVD releases for me is that I like to put Feldman on as I go to sleep and I am not equipped to play Feldman in my bedroom. Maybe when I get a Blu-Ray player for the living room I’ll put my old DVD player in the bedroom. Anyway this release is essential for all aficionados of Morton Feldman, John Tilbury, the Smith Quartet or just stunningly wonderful music. My highest recommendation.
More great new music in this area coming out over the next couple of months. Most exciting of course are the next two volumes in the Morton Feldman Music for Piano and Strings from Matchless. The next one is particularly exciting for me as it contains Patterns In A Chromatic Field and Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello. I’ve mentioned earlier how much Feldman’s piano music means to me, but I also adore how he uses the cello and love it in the pieces where it stands out. So you’d think that Patterns, being cello and piano would be an all time favorite and I do like it a lot, but I’ve never been satisfied with any of the recordings I’ve heard. So I have a high hopes for this one (though I have to say I’d really like a Rohan de Saram/John Tilbury recording of the piece). Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello is, I think, my favorite Feldman chamber piece. The hatART version of the piece is one of the Ives Ensembles absolute best, but alas its out of print and I’ve only had a lossless rip of it (this is on Hat’s re-release schedule and I definitely will purchase it when it comes out). Anyway can’t wait to hear the take on this piece from this really excellent group of musicians. Volume 3 features a number of the short pieces but also another version of Trio. As reported earlier I have been quite taken by the recently released DVD of this piece on Mode so I will certainly enjoy hearing another take on it.
Morton FeldmanMusic for Piano and Strings volume 2 (Matchless Recordings)
John Tilbury, Smith String Quartet
Patterns In A Chromatic Field; Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello
Morton FeldmanMusic for Piano and Strings volume 3 (Matchless Recordings)
John Tilbury, Smith String Quartet
Piece for Violin and Piano; Extensions 1; Projection IV; Durations II; Vertical Thoughts II; he Viola In My Life; Four Instruments; Spring of Chosroes; Trio
Additionally there are two releases coming out on April 16th (probably coming sooner then the above) I recently found out about that have me interested. Discs of James Tenney and John Cage from Zeitkratzer Productions. The “Old School” series will also include releases by Alvin Lucier and Morton Feldman coming later in the year. I’m not very familiar with this ensemble and how their take on these pieces will be but there are certainly some very good performers in the group that I am famalair with: Frank Gratkowski, Hayden Chisholm,Franz Hautzinger ,Reinhold Friedl, Maurice de Martin, Burkhard Schlothauer, Anton Lukoszevieze, Uli Phillipp, Ralf Meinz, Matt Davis, Hilary Jeffery directed by Reinhold Friedl.
As I’ve intimated elsewhere the music that is really exciting me these day is modern composition, particularly that of the experimental composers. While I had listened to some of the experimental composers prior to my interest in contemporary improvisation it was really circling back to them from that perspective that really captivated me. I’ve since come to the conclusion that the improv I was particularly enjoying was that which was exploring the ideas of the experimentalists in improvisation. Of course a lot of so called “eai” wasn’t doing this, which I think partially explains why there are large segments of that music that don’t appeal to me. Anyway of late I’ve found that going back to the source has been a lot more rewarding for me and one thing I’ve quite enjoyed has been people that are involved in both worlds. Last years recording of four pages of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (Planam) by Keith Rowe and Oren Ambarchi is a good example as would be John Cage’s Four6by Tom Chant, Angharad Davies, Benedict Drew, John Edwards on the otherwise unremarkable Decentered (Another Timbre). Of course last year was strong with new takes by established classical performers of pieces from the experimentalists, John Tilbury’s beautiful rendition of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories leading the pack. Historically interesting recordings such as the Treatise from the Quax Ensemble on Mode and new recordings of very recent pieces from Christian Wolff and James Tenney on New Worldmade for a solid year of music for those who share my interests.
Though still in the first month of 2010 this year is already shaping up to be another banner year for this music that is capturing my interests. A couple of weeks back I got a copy of the new recording of Morton Feldman‘s 1980 composition Trio released on DVD by Mode. I’ve watched this DVD several times since then and left it running with the TV off several other times. This performance by Aki Takahashi (piano), Rohan de Saram (cello) and Marc Sabat (violin) is sublime and the quality of the recording is amazing. It’s recorded in the 24/96 standard which is much higher than what CD’s are recorded at and also I believe in surround sound. I only have a stereo so I can’t take full advantage of the surround but the stereo spatialization is very nice. Anyway its the sound of the instruments that really matters to me and they are remarkable in this piece. The piano is so rich and reverberant, audible throughout the entirety of its decay, more so then I’ve ever heard on any recording. The violin and cello, sometimes played as one in a dry wheezing chord, at other times contrasting in their separate registers are equally well presented. I don’t think I’ve heard a recording that sounds more like I was actually there than this one.
The performance of the piece is equally stunning, with Rohan de Saram gently “conducting” with his head as the play through this piece over a very leisurely 1’45” which again thanks to the format you can enjoy uninterrupted. All the sounds are given their full weight and time, perfectly placed in the space. I have a copy of Trio that was released on the HatART label performed by members of the Ives Ensemble and I always thought of it as a rather minor work. This version, about thirty minutes longer, brings out so much more in the piece and I really prefer how it is played. Piano is the key to Feldman for me, his compositions, solo or ensemble, with piano are my favorites and just seem the most representative of the essence of his compositions. The pianist is thus supremely important and while I love the Ives Ensemble I’ve never quite liked John Snijders piano as much as some of the other Feldman interpreters. I mean his playing is very, very good and all the recordings I have of him playing Feldman are completely acceptable. But for me I think that the piano player needs to be almost transcendental to really get to that essence of Feldman’s work. Tilbury of course is my favorite, but Aki Takahashi is I think one of the top tier, especially for the chamber pieces. There is no other cellist that I’d like to hear playing Feldman more than Rohan de Saram and his performance here is exquisite. Perfectly played as he marks the time keeping the ensemble in order. The cello can be such a rich, reverberant instrument and Feldman works with that, as well as the dry, flat sounds he so often evokes from string instruments. Finally Marc Sabat is fairly new to me, though I know he has been involved in several of the Mode Feldman edition releases now. In this piece the violin seems mainly in line with the cello, though there are certainly parts where all of the instruments seem to be in opposition to each other. Sabat’s playing seems really fine to me here and I’m definitely interested in hearing more of his work.
For various reasons I’ve somewhat avoided the Mode Feldman releases but on hearing this piece completely open up for me I’m definitely going to check out a bit more of their Feldman Edition.
Earlier this week I got the four new releases in the “piano series” put out by the Another Timbre label (read a review of all four here). While I am of course interested in listening to the entire series, the long awaited John Tilbury release has gotten almost all of my attention so far. Announced almost at the beginning of the label’s history (it’s AT 10, the most recent is AT 25) it contains recordings of solo piano pieces by the minimalist Terry Jennings plus an innovative working of John Cage’s Electric Music for Piano. The Terry Jenning’s pieces are sublime, delicate piano miniatures from 1958-66 that anticipate Feldman’s late piano pieces in their soft, deliberate nature if not their length. Jennings is woefully underrepresented in performance and recordings, I can only think of a few other pieces of his that I’ve heard. Thus it is a wonderful gift to hear some of his piano pieces so perfectly played by Tilbury on this recording. There is sound and silence and a sense of waiting in these pieces; patient and without any anxiety.
It is music of simplicity and great mystery. There are bar lines, but nothing feels counted: things happen in moments and not measures. There is always time for the resonance of the piano. (Is there any player better at feeling this resonance than John Tilbury?) The sounds drift, suspended in a dense medium of some kind. The shape of a piece emerges gradually, like the hills appearing as the marine layer burns off. Each piece feels like a small even extended in time” – Micheal Pisaro from the liner notes to the Jennings pieces.
The bulk of the album is a near forty minute realization of John Cage’s Electric Music for Piano, which was written for David Tudor in 1964 as a set of loose instructions for combing several disparate elements. These elements are instructions for use of parts of Cage’s Music for Piano 4-84, realized using electronic equipment (the score mentions microphones, amplifiers and oscilloscope) and constellations from an astronomical chart. John Tilbury performs this piece as a duo with Sebastian Lexer handling the electronics (you can hear an earlier take on this piece by them here (scroll to the bottom)). Lexer has developed this system he refers to as Piano+ which is basically the piano captured by microphones and manipulated by MAX/MSP patches of his own devising. Of course MAX/MSP manipulation of the piano is an academic trope done enough so that even the most varied of patches share a certain amount of familiarity. Lexer’s solo releaseDazwischen on the Matchless label aptly displays these tropes and the kind of digital excess that MSP can lead to. But in the case of this piece, in I think attempting to capture aspect of Tudor’s electronics, which often used cascading amplification, feedback, phase shifting and other simple and frankly abused electronics, these excesses are mostly avoided. Which isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional bit of cheesily delayed tones, autopanning or video game type of sounds, just never to any sort of excess. Most of the time the sounds seem to be more faint crackles, distorted piano tones, restrained feedback and the like. The piece is remarkable in its spaciousness and subtlety with the most dramatic parts coming from the piano: crashes of the lid or bangs on the body or strings. The setup of the electronics itself as well as the excerpts from Music for Piano and finally the editing of the piece all used overlaid astronomical charts to arrange their construction. This adds additional layers of indeterminacy to the piece and fully succeeds in Lexer’s stated desire to “… go beyond a realisation that comprised of simply adding electronic effects to the piano”. With a piece like this one is always going to be in the shadow of Tudor and I think that Tilbury and Lexer succeeded admirably in creating a realization that is fully their own but acknowledges this influence. Tilbury’s pianism is markedly different from Tudor’s though I’d say they share many a common goal. As an example of how they are different but akin Tudor’s realizations of Feldman’s indeterminate pieces are I think far superior to Tilbury’s but I would definitely rather hear Tilbury handle the late Feldman. The two pianists strengths I think lie in different areas even if their sympathies are closely aligned. Likewise the electronics that Lexer employs, digital simulations of analog effects, are a far cry from the wild, on the edge, virtuoso electronics of Tudor. And he makes no attempt here to cavort in that territory. It is far more restrained and safe then Tudor and yet it nods toward it, acknowledges the sounds if not the application. This makes the piece theirs and it is a remarkable bit of music, something that is simultaneously new and old a piece of music that could really be read as an application of new technology and ideas to older music that is open to such experiments.
The beautiful Jennings pieces and the thoroughly engaging Cage realization make for a varied and fantastic CD. One of the best releases yet on Another Timbre and absolutely well worth picking up.
For fans of the music under discussion here 2010 will clearly be another solid year. The above two releases are an incredible start, recordings that I’m sure will remain favorites throughout the year. There is a lot more to look forward to this year though, as there are two releases forthcoming that are sure to be among the years best:
David TudorBandoneon ! (a combine) (E.A.T./ArtPix/Microcinema)
Another DVD from the 9 Evenings of Theatre & Engineering concerts, this one featuring an early David Tudor composition that has never been released. In this piece Tudor plays a bandoneon (a sort of accordion) manipulated with electronics and controlling some sort of visual projection system. This is one of the essential steps that Tudor took toward becoming a composer and his focus on live electronics. The combination of acoustic instruments and electronics is an area I’m fascinated by and something I’ve worked with a lot with my Prepared Wire Strung Harp. Tudor with pieces such as this one, his realization of Cage’s Variations II and the like really pioneered this whole area and getting a chance to hear and see this seminal piece is something I’m looking forward to more then anything else this year.
The other essential forthcoming release is the first of a series of DVD-Audio discs of John Tilbury playing Feldman pieces with the Smith Quartet. I’ve long wanted to hear some of Feldman’s Piano and … pieces with Tilbury and I can’t say how excited I am to finally get the chance. For John Cage and Piano and String Quartet are two of my favorites in this category making this DVD even more exciting. The only wildcard here is the Smith Quartet of whom I’m completely ignorant but the seem to have a good history and a sold pedigree.
Morton FeldmanMusic For Piano And Strings Volume 1 DVD-AUDIO (Matchless)
The Smith Quartet (Ian Humphries, violin; Darragh Morgan, violin; Nic Pendlebury, viola; Deirdre Cooper, cello) with John Tilbury (piano) live at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music, 2006.
01. For John Cage, 1982 (1:31:14) (Darragh Morgan and John Tilbury)
02. Piano and String Quartet, 1985 (1:29:30)
Below are the ten releases the struck me the most in 2009. Most of these received many plays, all of these pieces revealing greater depth the more you listen. Several of these pieces deserve an essay in and of themselves and that perhaps is the greatest tragedy of the lack of criticism in this area. For the most recognition these albums will get in our time is perhaps a short review, little more then a gilded thumbs up/thumbs down. Perhaps in the future there will be scholars who will examine some of these pieces as they deserve (and honestly the classical pieces are quite likely to receive such attention sooner rather then later) but for now placement on a “best-of” list and perhaps a few words will have to do.
Releases of Note 2009 (part 2/2)
Morton Feldman/Howard SkemptonTriadic Memories – Notti Stellate a Vagli performed by John Tilbury (Atopos)
John Tilbury’s set of Morton Feldman piano pieces All Piano, released on the LondonHALL label has been in my opinion the definitive recordings of the later piano pieces. Since recording these pieces in the late 1990s Tilbury has been called on to perform these pieces on numerous occasions culminating with this release of Triadic Memories from October 2008. Freed from the constraints of recording for compact disc and masterfully fitting this music to the space at hand this recording is a leisurely 103 minutes. This allows the notes to float in the space, their natural decay seeming to linger for longer than possible. Tilbury’s unrivaled touch at the piano, played with the sustain pedal partially depressed (a trick he learned from Cornelius Cardrew), gives the individual notes and chords an almost buttery feel with the occasional dissonances seeming to almost resolve themselves in the lingering overtones. Absolutely sublime music and nothing else released this year received more spins in my player.
Along with this definitive version of Triadic Memories is the sublime Howard Skempton piece Notti Stellate a Vagli in which the mostly single notes are perfectly placed among pools of silence. After the Feldman piece it almost feels hurried, but it’s a spare piece in which the sounds are allowed plenty room to to breathe. The icing on the cake, this is a beautiful compliment to the epic Triadic Memories.
Cornelius CardewTreatise performed by Keith Rowe and Oren Ambarchi (Planam)
I don’t buy a lot of LPs but recordings of Treatise by Keith Rowe was definitely cause for me to pre-order this one and dust off the table. Treatise, Cornelius Cardew’s epic graphic score has of course been a favorite piece of mine for half a decade now and Keith Rowe is easily the most significant interpreter of the piece. He had worked with the piece as Cardew was working on it, sometimes playing from the hand drawn pages. He was involved in the first performance of the piece in the UK and in AMM who performed the piece with Cardew many times. Since those days it has remained a constant companion and it is doubtful there is anyone who has worked through the score as thoroughly or as rigorously. Oren Ambarchi has been a stalwart of the experimental music scene for the last decade and has been involved in what I think are two of the most successful recordings of Treatise to date. The first being the fantastic Seven Guitars performances released as part of the Amplify 2002 boxed set on the Erstwhile label which again also involved Rowe. The other is of course this release. Each side of the record includes two pages of Treatise from what seems to be a contiguous performance of pages 53, 58, 168 & 169 on February 8th 2009 in Amsterdam (of which you can watch ten minutes of here).
Oren Ambarchi leans toward the drone, though a rich one made up of fractal like elements that reward close attention more then as a background sound. If one takes him to be playing the lifeline and the divergent parallel lines it is an excellent interpretation of the pages played. Page 53 can be seen in the little picture above and you can see how the lifeline runs through it with an line angling off of that which fits very well with Ambarchi’s drone that seems to open up as that secondary line does. Rowe in contrast plays in a spikier style, working each of the distinct elements on the score with a long defined set of actions. While these have been worked out over a long time as Rowe has constantly updated his setup and aspects of his approach his renditions of Treatise, while usually quite recognizable, have always remained fresh and vital. The first side of the record is page 53 and 58 over the course of about 14 minutes recognizable treating each element with care and consideration. On the flip side of the platter are pages 168 and 169 which are the final pages in the score. These pages contain just the lifeline (and IIRC a gap in the line on the beginning of page 168) as a sort of dénouement of the piece. Ambarchi’s drone rustles in all buzzes rising and falling with dead silence for the gap. Rowe’s sound is equally subdued but instead of just working with continuous sound he works with small events, scrapes, little wirrs and rubbing on the pickups. These pages to me have a much slower feel then those on the other side and it is no surprise to me that they spend more time on them. It is a beautiful rendition of the final pages of the score and the conclusion of what is in my opinion the best available performance of a section of Treatise (at least until Keith Rowe’s A Response to Treatise which hopefully is coming soon from the Cathnor label) .
Toshimaru Nakamura/Ami Yoshida Soba to Bara (Erstwhile Records)
No other album of improvised music was more surprising, challenging and ultimately rewarding then this first recording between Toshimaru Nakamura and Ami Yoshida. I’ve been writing an essay in which this disc features and it is something that I’d still like to finish but for now I’ve extracted from it just this short review of this album with a bit of additional framing, which will have to suffice for now. The existing “reviews” of Soba to Bara apart from limiting themselves primarily to the superficial were sure to include as an aside that this album is constructed from two performances recorded separately then layered together by Nakamura. These reviews (if positive) were sure to mention that the album worked despite this whereas the thrust of my essay is that the album works because of this (I should note that Dan Warburton in his Paris Transatlantic “review” seems to take a similar stance). I came to this realization from playing music with the Seattle Improv Meeting when I found that the more I concentrated on playing the music at hand (we mostly played graphic scores) and the less I “listened” directly to my compatriots the more successful my participation was. Listening has an exalted status in improvisation and to musicians of that stripe it means more then the word implies. It’s kind of like “swing” or “porn” in that it is indescribable but a musician knows it when he hears it. Now of course this doesn’t at all preclude listening to the gestalt, the room, as Keith Rowe would put it. The room contains the sounds that the other musicians are generating, as well as the audience, ambient sounds and its own ineffable character.
Soba to Bara in contrast with some of the earlier expressions of the use of independent recordings does not set out to directly express these experimental notions. Jon Abbey, the man behind Erstwhile Records, greatest talent is his ability to put improvisers together in new units that push each other in such a way to yield unexpected results. This really is a talent and one which seems to be severely lacking in so many people that attempt to do this. On finding out that Ami Yoshida and Toshimaru Nakamura (two Erstwhile mainstays) had not performed as a duo he immediately set out to bring these two together. In the course of preparing for performing and/or recording the two decided to record separately a track that Toshi would then layer together so as to get a feel for the duo. Clearly they would try to record with their partner in mind creating a Sight like collaboration of memory. But it seems that the two participants remembered parts of their compatriots performances that the other chose not to focus so much upon. Ami’s vocal performance on this disc is harrowing, painful strangulations, gasps for breaths, a disturbing heavy breathing section, wrung out utterances and the like. Toshi seems to have determined that he’d work more in accompaniment mode here and perhaps thinking of Cosmos, Ami’s duo with Sachiko M where Sachiko’s sinewaves are like a line drawn through Ami’s scattered pointillisms, his sounds form an uneasy background, one where he seems he is trying to allow space for what can be Ami’s very soft sounds. The nature of his instrument, its barely controlled feedback makes this a difficult task and in contrast with Ami’s strangulated sounds it has a straining effect, that falls back into little reprieves of jittering static. The combination of all these elements is as if something absolutely unknown and perhaps monstrous is being given birth. This is just the beginning as the piece develops Toshi’s wrestles his meandering static and juddering feedback into an uneasy background that Ami seems to try claw her way through. Perhaps considering how unsettling Cosmos can be at their most intense (2002’s Tears on the Erstwhile label for instance) Toshi’s contributions become increasingly fragmented, ripping the fabric of that background in increasingly dramatic bursts. The way that one of these outbursts of feedback obliterate what can be a soft, or aggressive vocalization almost seems scored at times but never has that effect of following on, that “listening” in improv so often has. I’m reminded of an example also involving Ami Yoshida, her 2006 collaboration with Christof Kurzmann (a s o, Erstwhile Records) where she does this odd little rising tone whose pattern Kurzmann immediately emulates with his software synthesizer. No single gesture has ever encapsulated the separation of old styles of improvisation and the new directions that are being explored.
Among EAI records in 2009 none I think captured its experimental basis as successfully as Soba to Bara and none challenged its listeners so directly. It was the most exciting album of the year, a year in which so much of the music had become incredibly predictable if of high quality. The cult of pure improvisation took some issue with it, but in the main minimized this aspect due to it’s incredible success. It is a testament to the musicians that they pushed themselves so far out in what was essentially a warm-up, a tool as a form of practice. Indeed when I saw them perform live in the fall of 2008 at the Amplify festival in Tokyo, it did not reach the heights of this album (which I hadn’t heard yet). The direct situation allowed perhaps too much to be heard, or perhaps it was the demands of having to perform multiple times in a number of days, but for whatever reason it was a good solid performance but not the boundary stretching tour de force of this recording. It is also to the credit of Jon Abbey, who has publicly stated his dislike for projects of this nature, that he put this out. But the music is amazing and powerful and he certainly recognizes that transcends any such notions of construction and conceptualism.
Keith Rowe/Sachiko MContact (Erstwhile Records)
When I said above that many of these releases deserve whole essays written about them I was thinking primarily of my unfinished essay that my Soba to Bara comments were taken from and this incredible, epic double album from Keith Rowe and Sachiko M. Keith and Sachiko have been involved in some of the most powerful, complicated and difficult music of the last decade and it is appropriate the decade end with their first recording as a duo. There is always something of the times in contemporary music and I think it is no coincidence that the aughts gave birth to what came to be known as EAI. AMM had been applying experimental techniques to improvisation for decades, what was it about this decade that brought so many disparate elements together in quite this way? Alas exploring this is beyond the scope of this post, but I hope that someday someone takes up that challenge.
Oval, Track 2 on the first disc was from Keith and Sachiko’s initial meeting at the Amplify 2002 festival in Tokyo and thus is part of the documentation of those four shows. One of the best shows of the festival and one that surprised me at the tack that Keith and Sachiko chose, both working in a hyper-restrained pointillistic vein. Over the course of the two hours of this set, we get most of the rest of the possible combinations from these two, though Keith seems to have permanently moved on from the so called “drone” produced by his guitars pickups, electronics and amp. The long first track sounds the most like one would expect, Sachiko using a single tone for the bulk of its duration. For the next couple she works with the twittery sine effect as well as the dirtier electronic sound of the switches on her devices. The final track has her utilizing her contact mics, a tool she has used in the past but has begun re-exploring (to mixed effect) in recent years. All of the music on this set is incredible, easily the greatest bit of collaborative improv done this year. It is interesting to contrast this a little with Soba to Bara, which personally I found a bit more exciting, most likely due to having seen this duo live last year (plus the initial long track here, but more on that in a bit). Toshi and Ami were less interesting in the live show then on that disc which as I alluded to above was perhaps due to the unavoidability of listening. Keith on the other hand I think can focus directly on what he is doing while only paying attention to the room. This I think is a real skill that he has cultivated over the years and that arose from serious thought and decades of experience. Sachiko in contrast is simply unyielding which in one with such a refined touch leads to a similar effect.
Oval and Rectangle (d1t2 and d2t1 respectively) are the two most amazing tracks on this disc and the real achievements here. What is particularly amazing about Oval as I mentioned above is that it was their first time meeting. The opening track, Square, is much more like what someone who was familiar with the two musicians would expect. It is great music, epic in scope and rich in detail and yet it starts out safe, as if the two are feeling each other out, which is strange on the face of it, as their first meeting was days before. Thus this track feels a bit regressive, included only for completeness sake. In a way I feel that this set captures the entire range of Sachiko M – all of the ways she uses her sinewaves lie within. Keith on the other hand works with merely a subset of his toolkit and in the main sticks with this subset for all four tracks. Sachiko’s incredible taste and touch are her real strengths and why her minimal toolkit suffices. At her best she works as a colorist in these pieces as if she and Keith are collaborating on a painting made up of dots in which each has a shared set of paints that she applies with a fine knife while Keith uses several little brushes. The space and silences, especially in Rectangle are far more effective then most of the heavy handed conceptual uses of late using that space to complete a whole. The final track where Sachiko uses contact mics and Keith responds in kind is a beautiful exploration of texture an excellent way to complete the album.
So much more needs to be said about this album, I have touched on so little of its depths here and probably in a most incoherent way. It’ll have to do though for now, like I said this album requires an essay and all the research that that entitles. It is a fitting close to the decade though, one of the most powerful statements of EAI to date and incredibly fitting at this point of time when things are ossifying.
Christian Wolff Long Piano (Peace March 11) performed by Thomas Schultz (New World)
As I’ve intimated in the past I find it difficult to write convincingly about Christian Wolff’s music. There really is little more embarrassing then uniformed writing about classical music and rather then add too much to that unfortunate tradition I tend to demure. Wolff is difficult to write about because there is so much that has gone into the music, to make it what it is, that to ignore or gloss over that really does the music a disservice. Fortunately for you dear reader, New World has made the liner notes for this wonderful new disc available online so you can read John Tilbury’s insightful notes on Wolff’s music and this piece in specific. Along with that it contains a bit from Wolff himself explaining about the piece’s composition and Thomas Schultz writing about playing the piece.
“[Long Piano] seems to me like a kind of geological agglomeration. My hope is that it forms a possible landscape on one extended canvas. At first I just started writing and kept going. My tendency is to work in smaller patches. After the piece was finished I saw Jennifer Bartlett’s wonderfully engaging and cheerful work Rhapsody, first shown in 1976. It’s a 154-foot sequence of an arrangement of 988 one-foot-square silk-screened and painted enamel plates running around at least three walls of a gallery space. An extreme instance of what I’ve got in mind.” – Christian Wolff from the Liner notes
The prelude to the piece is the titular peace march which once again works in Wolffs deep commitment to humanity and social justice. TIlbury elegantly outlines this history in his essay in the liner notes and makes the essential point that Wolff, unlike his friend Cornelius Cardew, never gave up his commitment to the music in pursuit of these notions. Of course this works out better in some pieces then in others and in this piece, Wolff’s political statements are pretty oblique, fully at the service of the music it seems to me. Quoting again from the liner notes:
Long Piano begins unequivocally with a political “statement,” and yet in response to the question about the peace march from Long Piano, Wolff was equivocal. He simply replied, inscrutably, that “maybe it’s just to remind oneself. In my more recent work that content a number of times relates to a political mood, assertive, resistant, commemorative, celebrative, for instance. The connection may be fairly tenuous or subterranean; it is often discontinuous. “
It is a shame really that Wolff’s music is so unknown as much of it really is so appealing and not just to new music fans. Wolff worked a lot with interesting rhythmic devices, indeterminacy of composition and performance, empowering of the performer, but he never eschewed melody and his pieces are often quite charming as well as fully engaging on multiple levels. It is this dual aspect that again makes reviews that focus on the surface elements so useless as in many cases the magic lies beneath. And yet, Wolff always made those surface elements so compelling that the music can appeal to all really. As he wrote:
“But my notion is that music can function better socially if it is more clearly identified with what most people recognize as music, which is not a question of liking or disliking, but of social identity. By function better socially I mean help to focus social energies that are collective not individualistic, and that may therefore be revolutionary politically.”
The music herein may not appeal to many of those who read this site, but they are well worth a listen. The dissonance of some of the chords, the spaces between the sounds, the occasionally driving melodies, the odd rhythmic patterns all mixed together may seem inexplicable, maybe even a mess, but it all hangs together. The initial Peace March is perhaps the most incongruous, the “patches” that make up the primary piece contain all that I’ve ever loved in Wolff’s piano music and more, showing that his program is endlessly developing and always changing. At times beautiful in a way that evokes Feldman, yet owns nothing to him at other times beautiful in a way that brings Cage’s Number Pieces to mind and still at other times almost having that rigorously random sensation that Webern can inspire, while still others makes me think of Cecil Taylor! It evokes these, but never seems derivative of them always sounding to me like Wolff. Finally the performance of the piece by Thomas Schultz, who commissioned it is really quite a nice, a pianist I was previously unfamiliar with, but one I will keep my ears open for.
Finally Wolff’s music is a perfect example of the notion that I’ve long espoused that music based on ideas is richer because of it. Wolff puts this in the liner notes more succinctly then I ever have, so let me close this piece with another quote from him:
“Every piece, I think, has, in addition to the abstract arrangement of its sounds . . . what I would call a content, something that it suggests, which is not the same as its sounds, though such a content may deeply affect those sounds, how they are arranged and how they appear to us.” – Christian Wolff, quoted in the liner notes
Andrea NeumannPappelallee 5 (Absinth)
It’s been a long time since Andrea Numann put out a solo release (Innenklavier in 2002, plus a self-released cd-r in 2007, Wohkrad, that I never heard) and really even her collaborations have never been that frequent. Perhaps this has contributed somewhat to her mystique, there is none of that tendency for over documentation you sometimes see. Whatever the case may be, she remains my favorite of the Berlin improvisers and one whose new releases I am always anticipating. Of course there is a bit of a connection between Andrea’s music and my own; I play the wire strung harp, and the guts of a piano are referred to as the “harp” for good reason and are likewise strung with metal (though at far greater tension and with a lot more strings) not to mention the use of contact mics and the like. This was a bit of a shock for me the first time I saw her perform, at which point I immediately acquired what solo material I could find. As I listened more to her, I found a lot more differences then similarities and in the process she became a favorite. In addition her collaborative works, ATÃ˜N with Toshimaru Nakamura, In Case Of Fire Take The Stairs with Kaffe Matthew and Sachiko M and LidingÃ¶ with Burkhard Beins are among the strongest releases of the last decade.
This gem of an album was recording in this apartment building that she shares with a number of other musicians and the sounds of this environment permeate the album. It also features several artificial gaps between the various segments, which in themselves were not necessarily recorded in the order herein. This construction creates an image of a place, of a musician at work, of restless creativity and as a whole is a remarkable piece of music. Listening on headphones you can hear some of the neighbors at play, practicing instruments or in day to day living. The silences allow the same categories of sounds from your own domicile to contribute likewise. An application of Cage’s work in silence that I find more sophisticated and successful then many, not only acknowledging such sounds as equal participants but working with them in a multitude of ways as the very fabric of the piece. The sounds that Neumann makes directly from her inside piano instrument aren’t too far from what those who have heard from her before would expect. But there does seem to be iteration in her overall sound, perhaps due to additional tools, or specific preparations but most of all from their collaboration with the space. Lots of sounds of strings: objects rubbed up against them, whirrs of rotating objects against them, brushes or steel wool interacting with string and pickup, objects vibrating against them, wonderful sounds, perfectly placed as always. A favorite section has a very distant conventionally played piano from one of her neighbors far in the background as Neumann works with these various techniques creating quite mechanical sounds in the foreground.
There was another album from Andrea this year ,a duo with Ivan Palacky playing amplified knitting machine (!) that was quite well reviewed in the couple I read. However I never saw it turn up for sale anywhere and thus never got a copy. But great to see strong new statements from this most elusive of the Berlin musicians.
“The first RELAY meeting was on 18 March 2005. We had two things in out mind; aesthetically speaking, we wanted a monthly improvisation concert more concentrated on making music (I still call it music) out of non-musical sound/noise, or even interaction with something extra-aural, the visual; regarding our artistic lives, RELAY’s main goal was to build a sustaining network among improvisers and experimental musicians domestic and abroad.” -Hong Chulki, from the liner notes
As I stated in the previous post of all of the various “scenes” in contemporary improv none seem as vital and bursting with creativity as the small group of musicians clustered around Seoul in South Korea. This compilation documenting two years of this scene gives a compelling little glimpse into it for those of us far away. The RELAY series ran for four years and this double set documents the final years of the series when they had the funds from government grants to bring in a diverse array of guests musicians. RELAY seems to have been fully hooked into and facilitated by the internet and the documentation of the series can be found on the Manual site covering all of the events including listing the participants, scans of the flyer’s, pictures of various shows and mp3’s of a bunch of the sets. My kind of series. This set documents the concert series warts and all: Mats Gustafsson not fitting in at all with Choi Joonyong and Jin Sangtae (I’d like to hear the story behind this rather unlikely collaboration), Taku Sugimoto’s self-indulgent composition performed by an all star tentet at Nabi, as well meetings that feel like long established working groups: Toshimaru Nakamura with Park Seungjun, Choi Joonyong/ dieb13/Joe Foster as well as local groupings such as Choi Joonyong/Joe Foster/Hong Chulki/Jin Sangtae/Ryu Hankil. Plus a delicious slice of English adding another piece to their small discography. Really all of the pieces are worth hearing barring the Mats track, though of course some work better then others.
2009 perhaps might have led to a slight over-documentation of aspects of the vital Seoul scene, all of the releases featuring Ryu Hankil rather spring to mind. Most of these have been good, but oversaturation can breed discontentment. This set came out in February 2009 and was like a breath of fresh air, something different from what we’d been hearing so far and infectious in its riot of energy and commitment to exploration. Being a compilation it would require a track by track writeup to really go into the music contained, so this will have to suffice. I’ve kept up pretty well with the Seoul scene (though not exhaustively) and based on the recorded material (definitely not to be confused with being there) this is a fine overview, but even more importantly it contains some great music. Their idea of fostering a network of musicians appeals to me greatly as I think it does to all who live in an out of the way corner with only a small number of fellow travelers. This music is truly international and all of the vital regions have embraced that. Tokyo, London, Berlin and now Seoul, this aspect has kept things pushing ahead all the time. I look forward to hearing the further developments from Seoul and where ever else the music breeds.
Radu Malfatti/Klaus Filipimaoto (Erstwhile Records)
I’ve found Malfatti’s work over the last decade to be pretty mixed from fantastic early improvisations with Phil Durrant and Thomas Lehn, to astringent compositions that seem to lack, well a lot. It is with this album though that I made the realization that all of his compositions, his inflexibility and extremism have bascailly honed him into being able to make this kind of music. Performing a composition that requires you to sit there doing nothing (while your collaborators – if any – may or may not do nothing as well) is perfect training to be able to do nothing in a live improvisation where seconds of inactivity can seem like minutes. It also forces one to really focus on the sounds used, a lesson that I myself learned in some pieces that I worked on that used some long spaces. That really was my complaint on many of Malfatti’s compositions, the sounds seemed to be ignored and the structure wasn’t so interesting to sustain that. Any ideas that may have been there were never elucidate clearly enough leaving it up to the listeners to draw their own. Those ideas definitely didn’t sustain the paucity of the structures or the disinterest in the sounds. But it seems that along the way Malfatti honed his sounds and in a studio context his dry hisses, simple taps and echoy exhalations have become rich and resonant.
I’ve never felt that Malfatti really works with silence in a Cagean fashion, that it’s not about ceding the music to the surroundings for him. Instead it always seemed more like an exercise perhaps related to the questions of memory somewhat poised by the quotations included on some of his albums, perhaps though simply as a parameter that can be pushed as some would push volume. This year I had a realization that if the silence in music is simply a space to allow other music to breathe then one can capture an aspect of this musically. To illustrate this consider Malfatti playing one of his spare compositions next to a babbling brook. His few sounds will come and go as the brook merrily babbles on the whole time. Now what if a recording of this brook was brought into the studio and allowed to play throughout the session? It is only one more step then to imagine a musician playing music in the manner of this babbling brook giving you a piece that captures the same essence of Malfatti playing with big “silences”. This revelation turned around my thinking on a lot of things and I began working on a series of pieces exploring this notion (The Grey Sequence, so far unreleased).
When Imaoto was released in autumn 2009 it immediately struck me as an instance of this notion, intentional or not. Klaus Filip’s sinewaves, always shifting and yet always present are just like that babbling brook. Malfatti’s playing, as I mentioned in the first ‘graph, is meticulous here, etherial and perfectly honed. The week I received this album I also bought Jonathan Lethem’s new novel Chronic Town and I incesently played this album each night for several hours as I’d read. I didn’t want to listen to anything else, the floating nature of this album somehow fit this book so well, creating the eternal fog that NYC lies under in the book or the haze of that other chronic that is burned so frequently within its pages. Pausing to contemplate what I’d read the music would always be there, rewarding close attention, with gentle tapping or an astringent hiss against the endlessly shifting tones. It fills a space like that babbling brook does when you walk next to it in the woods, a snap of a twig or a rustle in the underbrush substituting for Malfatti’s ‘bone. I always listen to this softly and never on headphones, even when I’m not reading and it is like an open window. This is easily Malfatti’s best album since dach and if it required all that unrewarding hard work to arrive at this, it was well worth it.
Kevin Parks/Joe FosterPrince Rupert Drops (homophoni)
There pretty much is just too damn much music out there and now that we have endless amounts of music freely available to download well there is just that much more. One of the most reliable curators of downloadable music is David Kirby’s homophoni label and this piece from Kevin Parks and Joe Foster was the highlight of his few releases this year (full disclosure, I’ve put out a piece on Kirby’s label, but don’t let that dissuade you from his otherwise impeccable taste). Kevin and Joe put out a disc a couple of years ago Ipsi Sibi Somnia Fingunt that while filled with many great moments had not ever quite done it for me, but this piece transcends all of the issues I had with that disc. This was another release from early in the year (Jan 31st) that I listened to countless times throughout the year and it constantly engaged me.
It begins with shifting tones that come in and fade out, a sample from Parks? Foster’s trumpet through some effects? Hard to say, but in a way it almost feels like the sax from Ground-Zero‘s Consume Red, though it comes and goes it only plays for a few repeats when does and at a totally different level of intensity. The rest of the sounds seem more like they come from Foster’s damaged pedals and Park’s computer. A rumble that gives one’s low end a good work-out persists for a while, crackles and little metallic bits add color here and there, squeeks and hiss that could be electronic, could be acoustic drift around. The use of such disparate materials really works in this piece, keeping your attention and never feeling superfluous. Toward the end of the piece there is this haunting tone, heavily effected that comes in, as this hesitant series of taps on a drum gently contrasts with it. It is as if the consume red-ish bit has come back mutated into a different beast. Things pick up a bit from here, bringing a feeling of finality to close out the piece, not in any sort of cliched way, but just right for all that has come before.
This is genuinely great music and shows that the download is not in any way a second class citizen. Kevin is back in Korea and at least occaisonally playing with Joe, let’s hope for many more fruitful collaborations between these ex-pats. Anyway give it a listen, it is freely available after all.
Radu Malfatti/Taku Unami Goat Vs Donkey (Taumaturgia)
This release finds Malfatti and Unami in high conceptual mode and while I’ve been known to express my contempt for that at times, in this instance it works (I tend to almost always go along if it works. It just doesn’t most of the time). There were actually two Radu Malfatti, Taku Unami releases this year (the other being Kushikushism on Slub) and fans were rather divided on the relative merits between the two. For me there was no contest, the noisey atmosphere of the venue was the unheralded third performer on this disc and the gauzy nature of this room recording really gave life to this space. Malfatti brings his hisses and a nice rather rattly tone at times, as usual coming and going with long gaps. The sound of the room, Taku clapping, moving around it, evening playing some sounds occasionally pluse the audience and room noise, these all fill the gaps. Three Backgrounds, my favorite of Malfatti’s B-Boim releases, works in the same way, the sounds of the background filling in the spaces and making the whole affair decidedly more interesting then the sounds the musicians choose to use. I really like musicians improvising within a space, letting whatever sounds that are there add to the precedings, I always have. I recorded a series myself, Out of Doors, where I would deliberately play outside recording open air. Never quite worked out how I wanted but its the same impetus. The flow in this piece works as well, shifting in densities, though always quite soft and finally ending in mostly empty space with just the tapping on Malfatti’s trombone and what sounds like the shifting of objects continuing for a while and then just stopping.
This recording has been on my list pretty much since it came out but re-listening to it as I write it up, perhaps I’d shift it lower down on the list. The much later released Imaoto covers much of this ground in a way (as I write above) and far more successfully. Still this album stuck with me all year and received many a play. Well worth hearing and probably the most interesting of the Unami projects released this year.
So that’s it, 2009 in music. Well at least the music that I really liked. Yeah there was a bunch more things worth hearing this year, some of which just didn’t grab me quite enough, some of which I just have yet to hear and yeah there was a bunch of things I was highly anticipating that let me down. So mentally place whatever you feel is missing on either of those lists and call it good. All of my rambling at the end of this year can be read by clicking here. This also is it for this type of posts on this blog, or anywhere else from me. In the main I’ve enjoyed it, its been a lot of work but it makes me think more about the things I listen to and that is always a good thing. Thanks for reading along now and in the past. I’ve always done this for you and hope it has served at least some purpose. Happy New Year all and remember to keep looking up.
In the autumn of 1995 AMM engaged in their first tour of Japan, details of which seem to have escaped much documentation on the Internet. The only two confirmed dates are October 13th at the Nagoya City Art Museum in Nagoya which is the bootleg in question and October 22nd at the Egg Farm in Fukaya. This later concert was released as From a Strange Place on PSF Japan. It is interesting to have these two documents from nine days apart, to compare how AMM is sounding at this point in 1995. Any additional information on the Japan tour would be appreciated.
From a Strange Place begins immediately with piano work from Tilbury and a restless working of the strings on the guitar from Rowe. Taps and hits of the drums from Prévost interject here and there but are not dominate. He does move through objects signifying the full percussion setup, but unlike the previous. The beginning of this piece is rather helter-skelter with a worrying behavior as a dog at a bone. Sounds come in and stop but aren’t developed for long without a gap or a change. Rowe seems the most persistent, working his strings again and again without manipulating the electronic aspect, but with a wide degree of variance. When it does build into a denser structure it includes Tilbury’s arpeggios and grumbles and percussive string manipulations from Rowe’s guitar along with more vigorous drum work from Prévost. While overall this is a restless piece of music and it varies from silence to aggressive outbursts as a whole it seems less dense then the show from the week prior.There is a great section of a sustained spoken radio grab that Prévost responds to with more aggressive drumming, both rolls on the drums and singled pounded events that demonstrates the effectiveness of more muscular drum work (in contrast to the set under consideration today). The center of this piece is a long, spacious very tentative feeling section, made of squeaky bowed metal, oscillating but low intensity guitar feedback interspersed with string manipulations and chording from Tilbury whose decay takes far more precedence then the attacks. The weakest part of this show though was a Prévost led assault on the drums, but here (and again in contrast to the boot) Tilbury and Rowe match him in density and volume. But the gesture, that of a jazz drum solo, pulls you out where pure sound, however loud or ugly does now. But this event was short lived and the ending of this set, culminating with a Kabuki like clapped object amidst far away scrabbles on Rowe’s pickups, softly grinding metal and rumbled chords is among the best in its uncompromising yet stunningly beautiful nature. Here it feels as if all the musicians are finding their way, working through something which I think is characteristic of the best AMM sets. In that regard this recording is a think a nice example of a “typically great” AMM set if not as transcendent as the absolute top tier pieces. It also has my favorite of Keith Rowe’s painted covers 🙂
AMM October 13th 1995
Nagoya City Art Museum, Nagoya Japan
AMM has always been about searching for the sound in the performance.(5)
The recording begins with applause, presumably as the musicians took the stage. It begins quiet, with Prévost bowing some object and then rubbing on the surface of a drum. Apart from maybe some occasional moans from Rowe’s electrics the beginning sounds are all Prévost and move on to include short snare rolls, the occasional taps on a larger drum and at one point the shaking of some object. Even so it is spacious and tentative with good gaps as Prévost’s stops or switches objects. Tilbury eventually comes with a a very prepared piano sound, chords on strings that have been muted or had objects on them. A few of these and it goes silent again, followed by Prévost stroking a metal object and letting it ring. He seems to have had a kit here as he seems to be playing a kick drum with a pedal whilst scratching the surface of another drum and bowing something – rather active if still a bit subdued for a short burst. A very quiet, very thin electrical sound come from Rowe and the single piano notes from Tilbury on heavily muted strings. This is really one of the more exploratory openings with severe restraint from Rowe and Tilbury and Prévost almost seeming as if he is playing head down in his own space, not worrying or listening to anyone else, not concerned with sudden flurries of sound widely spaced out. A near drum solo comes from him, in that scattered jazz style that is all drums, but seems to just skitter over surfaces. Of course being AMM there is no obvious rhythm. Rowe is now letting a ripping static come from the radio, sometimes resolving into garbled speech, but all at a super minimal volume, just barely present. And then with a rip of feedback it all explodes, with Prévost pounding the skins and several abrupt big chords from Tilbury. More volume and more active now, it is still quite stilted though Prévost seriously flirts on drum solo territory rolling across all of his drums and even working a cymbal at the end of some of these gestures. Rowe is more aggressively attacking the strings, but in short bursts. The spaces between events widens a bit but with no decrease in intensity for a minute or so and then it becomes spacious and soft.
Oscillations on prepared strings from Tilbury, skittery bowed metal from Prévost and a warbling sound from Rowe, perhaps a knife under his guitars strings all of this allowed to run for a bit a kind of sickly stasis. Low end radio added to the mix, plus additional groaning sounds, purer bowed metal and tapped drums from Prévost with almost buried repeated gentle high registered piano chords from Tilbury continue this queasy miasma, that even a few big drum hits from Prévost can’t resolve. Most of this slowly fades away, leving a dentist drill wine and gentle piano playing, almost music box like from Tilbury. Finally it all fades away.
From a short gap, piano notes, now more mid-register and some of them prepared return joined shortly with brushes on the drums. A quiet electronic grinding whine whirls in and away, followed by gently tapped drums. Mallet work on the drums now, picking up the pace and as Tilbury begins to roll out big arpeggios on the ivories Prévost begins to work the cymbals, back in drum solo mode. The occasional roar and groan from Rowes electronics are buried under this assault, which even as it drops in intensity does not reveal it any clearer. Short, spaced out events now, squeaks from Rowe’s strings, shorter spaced out drum assaults and a tenacious working of a few piano keys all stops and now a whine, thin and upper mid-range from Rowe dominates the nearly empty soundfield. Prévost begins to rub a drum head, contrasting the higher pitch whine with short, low interjections, Tilbury works the piano strings directly.
Everything fades away leaving just Prévost working a drum head. After a bit of this the sound of Tilbury striking the pianos strings with an object is heard along with a low, quiet oscillation from Rowe. This continues apace until as it all fades away Prévost returns to gently and then not so gently pounding a floor tom. The brings Tilbury back to the keys, restless working a few bass notes. An uneasy tone come in, almost more felt then heard, just at the threshold of audibility amongst the other sounds. When it goes it away its absence is more obvious then its presence. As Tilbury rolls chords Rowe returns now with a more persistent buzz, restless and more at a volume with the others. Things become wobbly: the bobbing sound of a spring or utensil on strings, Prévost drumming arrhythmically, fragments of chords from the piano. This fades out, almost into a false AMM style ending, with Tilbury’s chords getting quieter and quieter, Rowe’s rumbles being turned down, and very soft bowed metal.
But the bowing of the metal picks up a bit in intensity and the piano chording is still quiet, widely spaced but persistent. Tilbury now playing quiet fragments of little melody’s and Prévost adds the odd strike of the drum to his bowing. Background roars and amplifier hums from Rowe come in and out, very widely spaced and then a grinding sound. Things keep pausing, as they seem to struggle to bring it back up. Now its that hurky-jerky style that is so oft driven by Prévost – start/stop little rolls on drums, hitting of other objects, short gestures. Rowe, as also is pretty common, with turn up a guttural roar and just as quickly cut it off sometimes seeming to work these sounds in parallel with Prévost’s staccato style. Vigorous rubbing of the guitar strings now and definitely the most aggressive from Rowe as Prévost now vigorously works the skins in true drum solo mode. This section played blind for most people would just sound like a jazz drum solo, not very AMM like at all. Prévost eventually backs it out, fading away on a long roll, Tilbury and Rowe now silent. A very quiet sound, perhaps a rubbing on Rowe’s strings, or a metal object of Prévosts is all that remains.
An electronic buzz comes up, a broken chord. Steady bowing now, quiet and thin. Rowe’s background hum. The last 8-10 minutes of this piece are beautiful – very spare with low end rumbles coming in and out, Tilbury putting in these deep chords that seem to come from the very depths and lots of space and silence. Out of this a little Feldman like broken chord, or a single stroke on the metal edge of a drum, or the the buzz of Rowe’s electronics. Very, very nice ending to what overall is a pretty mixed set.
This set is one of those that rather defies the ethereal floating nature so oft ascribed to AMM in the 90s. Taken along with From a Strange Place one can see that this is fairly typical for AMM at this point. The trio in fact constantly worked with eruptions of volume and density even in this configuration. The sounds are just a lot more recognizable, usually being piano chords or big drum assaults then the more pure noises they’d have used in the 60s. While I enjoy the roller-coaster nature of this period of AMM, I find that whenever Prévost has a full kit there is often a bit too gestural drumwork for my taste. When it becomes like a typical jazz drum solo, my interest wanes a bit. Interestingly the other members tend to just let these events play out, laying out (as it were) until space opens up again. I do feel that I should note that it is quite possible that Rowe was lost in the mix as I’m not sure what the sourcing on this one is. However being pretty familiar with AMM boots at this point I do listen for his playing as opposed to its relative volume and it clearly was not present at many points. Tilbury was pretty audible when he chose to be and I can more confidently assert his more withdrawn performance. As always when the music seems the most ego free it was immediately familiar as AMMMusic and as powerful as ever. As the decade would wear on it would seem that Prévost would pare down his tools and this I think would lead to the more austere final phase of the trio AMM.
What I wanted to add to this thread was how to judge an interpretation of the score. This is an incredibly complex issue but there are I think several basic rules of thumb that can be applied. First off, to get the most common objection out of the way, if you like a particular recording as a piece of music then that is great, no-one is denying you that. On this issue I think there is no discussion to be had. The question is though, is a particular recording an actual realization of the score, or more influenced by the score?
The key to interpreting the score is that you build up a consistent vocabulary for the symbols of the score. This vocabulary needs to be flexible as the symbols rarely stand on their own: they are constant intersected, amended, interrupted or overlaid with other symbols. This is an important issue that I think leads to failures in many interpretations, but I’ll get back to that in a bit. The consistency issue is equally important, if you do not consistently interpret the symbols then you aren’t really playing this as a score. Let me give an example; if you created a version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that played all the notes, used the exact orchestration, followed all of the rules of the score, except that you played it at a tempo such that it lasted nine hours, this would no longer be Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It would be at best “inspired by” or a gloss on it. Why? Because Beethoven gave explicit directions on the tempo for the score. Now there is a lot of debate on that and realizations of the score can vary in times by 15 or more minutes. But these I think are all valid, they fall within the parameters of the score.
So am I saying that doing a short version of Treatise is a priori invalid? No, but to do a short version of the score requires a huge amount of work. Cardew’s composition Volo Solo is apparently a transcribed version of the entire scored to be performed by a piano virtuoso which can be done in about 10 minutes. But this is meticulously scored (and it is rather difficult to see exactly how it is transcribed from the score. Tilbury (for whom it was composed) goes into this in Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished) and contains thousands of notes. So this is one solution to the issue of consistency and flexibility: rigorous transcription. In essence you are compressing the score into a smaller more compact version, a translation of all of this syntactic content into another system.
Beyond that level of transcription what else do we find in interpretations of the score? When you are not converting the symbols directly into traditional notation you tend to utilize varying degree of abstraction. That is you associate techniques, events, or sounds to the symbols. You then need to take into account the various permutations of the symbols, the spaces between them, the center line and the numbers. When sight reading from the score this is pretty challenging and the pages themselves contain varying degrees of density. In these sort of interpretations it takes much longer to work though each page, some pages have a lot of content to work through others have very little. Though the relationship between density and tempo is not precise, so pages with very little syntactic content can feel very slow while others dense with information feel fast. When sight reading the score, the amount of time it would take is certainly highly variable, but I think that on average you’d be pretty hard pressed to fully interpret a page in less then five minutes. Maybe a few pages would be less but many many more would require more time. Even if you did spend one minute per page, which would really be a gloss over most of the symbols, you would end up with a three hour+ performance. So when you are presented with a short performance there are basically five options:
It is fully transcribed to traditional notation and is played at a very high tempo with a high density of notes
The score is being broken up among the players such that for each page each player is playing only a small subset of the information there.
The score is being played layered: that is you each divide the score up among each player so that each player is only doing about 20 pages)
A subset of the score is being performed
It is a gloss of the score
Now lets specifically consider the Hat[now]ART version of the piece. I think its fair to rule out option (1) – it is too sedate, too ambient to be like a 120 minute Volo Solo. (2) and (3) are possible though of course this is impossible to know. Ideally any performance of the score should include information on the pages played and some description of the strategy adopted. I would guess that it isn’t a layered version of the score – it again doesn’t feel dense enough. (2) is certainly possible and I think would be the most obvious to someone who reads up on the available resources on the score:
“Performance advice. Divide the musicians into those involved in dot events (percussionists and pianists?) and those involved in line events. Dot events to be exclusively soft.” -Cornelius Cardew,Treatise Handbook(1)
However in this fashion to really treat it as a score, you’d basically have long rests between a lot of the events that you are playing. So it’d still come down to spending less then a minute a page, which even if you were only making a few amount of sounds would still come out to all the symbols in the score being played within this time. Again this take just isn’t that information rich, or quick in tempo. Thus it seems fair to say that this performance is a gloss, a “take” on the score. And there is nothing wrong with that, except that they say this is the “World premier complete performance” on the set (which rules out (4) of course). You can still like the music here, enjoy it for what it is, but it isn’t Treatise anymore then a nine hour version of the Ninth Symphony isn’t Beethoven
This post has gone on long enough, but I think it establishes a set of criteria for examining realizations of the score and demonstrates how to apply it. If there is further interest, I’ll add examinations of a couple of other versions here over the next couple of days.
The most successful (and common) strategy of interpretation of Treatise is to play a subset of the score. This allows you to devote the time that each page requires. When playing as a group without any sort of strategy of synchronization these types of interpretations necessarily become layered versions of the score. I for one am a fan of that type of layering and this was something well embraced by the 60s Experimental Composers (c.f. all of the simultaneous Cage performances) including Cardew. The entire score could be played through in the fashion, playing a page or series of pages in a number of sessions. We began this process in the Seattle Improv Meeting and played through 44 pages in this fashion (these can be downloaded here). This attempt to play through the whole score in sequence was stopped at that point as the interpretation was suffering in other ways. This is a good example of one of the other failures in interpretation: using the score for structured improvisation.
“The score must govern the music. It must have authority, and not merely be an arbitrary jumping-off point for improvisation.” -Cornelius Cardew,Treatise Handbook(1)
Use of the score for structured improvisation again becomes a gloss of the score; one is not interpreting the symbols of the score consistently or rigorously. Again you can make good music this way and it is not an invaluable exercise. In fact I quite like structured improvisation, I think that it often adds depth to improv, just enough structure applied to give form and to curtail certain impulses. However it is not following a score and as is quite clear with Cardew’s own intentions (“It must have authority”) this is not a rigorous realization. I should point out that in the case of the SIM this was just how the group developed. In our three years of working with the score, we evolved from a tentative learning process, to a rigorous consistent approach and then it kind of slackened off into this more loose approach. See some of the recordings from the second half of 2005 to the first couple of months of 2006 for some of the more consistent realizations (my personal favorite from this period is Pages 146-148)
Other versions that most likely fall into the gloss of Structured Improvisation would include FormanexTreatise- Cornelius Cardew(Fibrr). While they don’t explicitly say which pages they are playing on this recording (as opposed to their other recording) overall the music here is too overtly ambient to fit much of the score. However it is possible that this is the last three pages of the score in which this sort of interpretation would be valid. Again this is a case where it is frustrating that they don’t tell you the page(s) that are played. If you contrast this though with the other Formanex recording, Treatise-Live at Extrapool (also on Fibrr) it is markedly different, that one has the spaciousness and spikiness that more strict realizations tend to feature. I would also guess that the performance of pages 21 & 22 On the hat[now]ART release Material also leans this way. At least by some of the members (which is worth noting, there can certainly be degrees of rigor in any group performance of it) especially the vocalist who seems to be free riffing well past any material available from the score. This sort of free improvisation on the score I think is particularly egregious as this is adding semantic content which is not contained within the score.
Cornelus CardewTreatise (Prague version 1967) (Mode)
The most recent Treatise recording out there came out just a couple of weeks ago on Mode. This release is certainly of much historical interest, the QUaX Ensemble being one of the earlier groups to work with the piece. During the course of the development of the piece a number of musicians worked with it (including the members of AMM, in various combinations and of course AMM itself) and one of these was Petr Kotik. He was pretty young at the time, (early-mid twenties) and had was still in conservatory when he met Cardew and developed a relationship with him. He was able to get a number of pages (alas and annoyingly the liner notes do not specify these) prior to the scores publication in 1967 and put together the QUaX Ensemble to play it among other scores. They played from these pages frequent but and eventually put together a 2 hour version of the pages they had which they performed once on October 15th 1967. That of course is this recording. He quite clearly states in the liner notes that he received a copy of the complete score in Buffalo NY in 1969, two years after this performance. So this two hour version is clearly a subset of the score, thus eliminating the issues that are rife with short complete versions.
“There is much to admire in this 1967 version of Treatise by the QUaX Ensemble from Prague: the feeling of spontaneity, its uninhibitedness, the rough-hewn sounds, the accidental, the half-intended, the blurred.” -John Tilbury(3)
The liner notes include a page from John Tilbury which tellingly is half devoted to quotes from the Treatise Handbook. The above quote from him, which is rather amusingly used in the Mode PR, I think sums it up perfectly: There is much to admire yes, but there is also much that is not so admirable.
First off they clearly did spend the time developing a consistent take on the pages they had. The liner notes includes reproductions of two of Kotik’s pages which have numerous annotations on them. These include notes on what to play for certain symbols but are actually mostly devoted to timings. Most interestingly the notes mostly resolve around who is to play for a given symbol. For instance on the back cover there is an except of a page where the same symbol (black filled circles) are notated “Kotik”. Other notes seem to be either instruments or perhaps performance techniques that I can’t decipher (anyone who can, do let me know). These notes are pretty revealing in their take on the score, which to me seems like a fairly typical case of classical musicians trying to improvise. It in fact reminds me a lot of the workshop and performance I did with Vancouver New Music (that Joda references (in the ihm thread) and which I wrote up at length here: VNM Treatise report) where I’d say most of the ensemble never really managed to work with the score in and of itself, they always were using it as a springboard.
In the case of this version, they seem to have a concern that I’ve encountered among virtually everyone I’ve seen play the score: playing together. It seems for classical and jazz musicians that the concept of everyone working through it at their own pace is a difficult concept. This was constantly raised in the VNM group and also something that plagued the first half dozen or so sessions with the Seattle Improv Meeting (at least among certain people in both groups). Even a more recent performance that I did with a dedicated graphic score group (EyeMusic) under the aegis of Keith Rowe this issue was also raised. In this case since they seemed also to be working with the score in parts (that is assigning symbols to various performers) this seems a much more traditional approach. Of course Cardew definitely worked with the score in this way especially before AMM and I wouldn’t be surprised if he recommended this approach to Kotik.
Based on the annotated pages that we have in the liner notes it appears that their working out of the score is more an assignment of who plays what, not much of an indication of what they play. In other words this approach is structured improvisation. Listening to this before I closely examined those score excerpts there were a number of passages I found troubling that are explained somewhat by this approach. These passages involve overtly melodic material from the saxophone (Pavel Kondelik) and kind of piano jazz breakdown complete with vocals (Vaclav Zahradnik). Now one might think that one could assign melodic content to the symbols as long as one is consistent and in theory you could. But as I pointed out in my earlier post, any symbolic association must take into account the various fragments, interjects, incomplete symbols, overlapping symbols and so in. With very few exceptions no consistent melodic line would survive that for long. Thus the multiple long melodic sax passages seem to me outside of a strict reading of the score, but would make sense if you just were using the symbols as sigils for when a particular musician was going to perform.
Apart from this melodic content there are a lot of great sounds in this recording and lots of space. Apart from the center line, there are many pages with long gaps between symbols and thus any performance should have these gaps (unless someone is focusing on the center line, but even in this case the other musicians should respect the spaces). There is even a nice background radio grab for a bit, giving it a bit of a Cage or AMM feel. Much of the sounds are generated on traditional instruments with extreme extended techniques, using many of the sounds associated with avant-garde composition (ala Lachenmann) or post EFI improvisation. Additionally there are various ambient sounds, passing traffic, shifting chairs and the like that places this within a space and I think add a lot to the overall environment. Long stretches of this performance is fantastic in my opinion, though there often is something coming in that one may not like. For me it really is the melodic content and even worse the semantic content from the singing that mar the performance.
Cardew on a number of occasions expressed his dissatisfaction with classical musicians performance of this piece. Too hard for them to break out of their routines and notions of performance. Impossible for them to capture the right balance between the spontaneous and the structured. This recording I think is somewhat exemplary of that. The fact that the performers were young and still students probably gives this the life and drama that it does have. It still I think would have somewhat dissatisfied Cardew in that it doesn’t go all the way to where he wanted to go w/r/t performer involvement but probably wouldn’t be the total disappoint of some of the performances by highly trained and rigid musicians. As Tilbury says there is much to like here, but this is not I think a wholly successful interpretation of the score. It is definitely recommended though, it is an important piece in the history of the score a history that is quite lacking in the early performances.
Getting back to analysis of performances of the score there is two important notions that I have thus far neglected to mention. This was deliberate as I wanted to approach these recordings in terms of their consistency and rigor. These notions basically subvert that to some degree but in general they can’t be used to excuse those primary notions. These issues are numbers in the score and the notion of a perverse reading of the score. The numbers are inescapable in the the score so lets take a look at those first.
As with everything else in the score there isn’t any instructions on how to handle the numbers. However in the Treatise Handbook he says thus:
“The numbers are included at the pauses for the reason that: any act or facet of the conception or composition of the score may have relevance for interpretation.[…] It is the fact that there were 34 blank spaces before the first sign put in an appearance” – Cornelius Cardew, Treatise Handbook(2, p. 251)
This singular note on the numbers from Cardew doesn’t really give much info on how to interpret them. However it has come to be interpreted as a repetition of an event for the number of times of the numeric value. As there isn’t a specific symbol tied to the event the event is treated as outside of the score, that is it is independent of your consistent interpretation. So theoretically a performer could say play a chord 34 time, or make 34 sounds or what have you. So does the potential arbitrariness of the numbers make possible the overtly melodic sax in the QUaX version discussed earlier? Probably not. In general the numbers aren’t too large after the initial 34 and there are multiple long sax segments in that version. So I think my previous read of it still stands, but it is worth taking the numbers into account when you listen to a version where something may seem out of place (for those interested Tilbury includes a breakdown of the number distribution in the footnotes to the Treatise chapter in his Cardew bio, on page 278 No. 16).
The notion of Perverse Readings of the score is a lot more problematic and there isn’t a lot of information to go on. From Tilbury’s bio:
“…John White’s precedent for ‘perverse readings’ by reading ascending lines as descending intervals” – John Tilbury (2, p. 251)
The first time I encountered this notion though was for the AMM+Formanex performance of Treatise at the Musique Action Festival, Nancy, France in June 2002. At this performance AMM performed several pages of Treatise with John White who once again did his trademark Perverse Reading in this case interjecting banal samples into the performance. (Interestingly enough while looking for data on this, I found this tiny bit of video from this event here).
“AMM were extremely spartan (wonderfully so) while White, on some kind of sampling device, intruded with all manner of awful-sounding blurts, cheezy synth tones, sheep baa-ing, etc. It was very annoying and I found myself vainly attempting to mentally tune him out.” -Brian Olewnick
Now considering that Perverse Readings were par for the course, occurring from the very beginning of the scores history, can any out of the ordinary performance be considered “perverse”? I tend to think not, I think that the perverse readings are still consistent and rigorous, but in such a way that may be contrary, controversial and against expectations. Brian later asked Keith Rowe about that aspect of the performance and he went on to say:
“He felt that ‘Treatise’ performances had a tendency to get overly somber and reverential and wanted to inject a “low” element that he thought of as the sonic equivalent to US rags like Weekly World News, to introduce “transgressive” sounds that “simply aren’t done” at these types of events.” -Brian Olewnick
And this to me I think is the essence of the perverse read, not falling into a free for all, do as you wish sort of situation but subverting received notions. But I do find it a troublesome notion and this would certainly be an interesting point to have clarified.
There’s been a bit of discussion on the available AMM bootlegs. So I thought I’d list all the ones that I have here and that I’ll be investigating in the future. This can also serve as an index to this series. If there are any that I’m missing that it is okay to share, please get in touch!
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