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.
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