issue 27 :: September 2015

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Modern Composition Reviews

Mivos Quartet, Kate Soper, Erling Wold, John Cage, Jandek, Costis Drygianakis, Anthony Coleman, Michael Vincent Waller, Annea Lockwood, Else Marie Pade, Anthony Moore
Mivos QuartetReappearances (Carrier Records) CD

* The press release for this record claims that the Mivos String Quartet creates “impossible new soundworlds.” Uh… maybe there is a new definition of impossible that means the opposite of the one I’ve been using for decades. The four pieces here are very possible, hence their inclusion onto a physical medium… but maybe the press release refers to all the pieces not on CD, that never will be performed? OK, then. But here we have compositions by four composers, with Wolfgang Rihm being the only name recognizable to me. His 2004 “Quartettstudie” starts with quiet tones, before expanding into sections of more energetic melodic themes and explosive chords. It feels like a much older work, from the 1950s maybe. It reminds me of beautiful quartets by Bartók and Shostakovich, expanding into shifting details and gorgeous tonal interplay. The CD is worth it just for this one piece, the others are nice bonuses. Alex Mincek’s “String Quartet No. 3 (Lift-Tilt-Filter-Split)” barrages us with aggressive string scrapes and plinks that I suspect was commissioned by the guild that rehairs bows. Contrasting with very quiet sections, the piece seems neurotic, unstable, (purposely) confused and entangled: it’s not boring, but unpredictable and exciting. In David Brynjar Franzson’s “On Repetition and Reappearances,” the players explore much quieter textures, mimicking each other’s playing so we are not sure what instruments are playing what. The finale is “Corde Vocale” by Felipe Lara which uses bold, explosive eruptions. The piece’s entrance is jarring as the end of the previous, quiet piece. All in all, a wonderful collection of string quartets.
Kate SoperVoices from the Killing Jar (Carrier Records) CD

* Soper has been mentioned in recent issues from her involvement with the Wet Ink Ensemble, who accompany her on this multi-part disc-length work. Voices... imagines various female characters driven to ruin in the literature they are trapped within: Lady MacDuff, Daisy Buchanan, Emma Bovary, Iphigenia and three others I don’t recognize. Much of the work has a jumpy percussive feel like Harry Partch’s musical theater pieces. Sam Pluta’s electronics adds wonderful interesting textures within the quieter spaces. The seven member ensemble, in which Soper sings and plays second clarinet, is woodwind and piano-heavy. Soper’s singing is effective, exploring spoken phrases, electronically-treated parts, and ranges from children’s songs (MacDuff) to a loud rollercoaster of yells and screams (Bovary). Some of the pieces seem to use musical settings from the character’s time periods. This idea does pop up in Bovary’s “Mad Scene,” where Sam Pulta sings a lively period French song with appropriate piano accompaniment from the setting of her novel, with Soper singing over the top in a more modern style. MacDuff’s song sounds like it could be found in an old castle, with saxophone and recorder leading the instrumental melody. But you wouldn’t find the variety of electronic effects in a 12th Century castle I bet. Very clever and unique.
Erling WoldCertitude and Joy (MinMax) CD

* This is a weird record that I probably would immediately pass over if I saw it for sale in a record bin; it looks so much like a New Age inspirational CD. There is an air of the inspirational that flows through the story of the opera, which is based on a 2005 news story of a woman who murdered her three children because she said God told her to do so. Wold compares this crime with the story of God’s command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Arranged for five vocalists and two pianos, a simple, earnest mood grounds the actors and commentaries. At times the music reminds me of Philip Glass’ works for piano, pulsing, pounding, repeating melodic fragments. The long-form works of Meredith Monk also spring to my mind. Speaking and various kinds of singing—operatic, simpler pop singing, sometimes at the same time—are always changing, like a good radio play. So it is not a New Age inspirational CD to be quickly passed over, but rather a complex work for those who wish to explore the ideas of faith and divine communication, and also illusions and hallucinations from psychedelic drugs. You might remember Wold’s name as being one of the performers on the Rein album by Faust.
John CageEarly Electronic & Tape Music (Sub Rosa) LP

Robert Worby, who provided electronics on the recent set of Cage’s Song Books previously reviewed in this publication, joins Felix Carey, Iain Chambers and Philip Tagney on a variety of oscillators, tape players, turntables and other old electric devices to play six Cage compositions showing how the composer’s creativity and ingenuity remains relevant and inspiring today. The piece that most interests me on this record is “WBAI,” a 1960 composition that utilizes the resources found in a radio station; buzzes, feedback, small portions of recorded music played back at various fidelities. I don’t think I have heard this composition before now in any form. Cage’s intriguing work throughout the 1960s featured more meta-compositions than compositions, instructions or templates to create the works, sometimes using over-lapping transparencies to figure out how to place or shape sounds in time, but leaving the choice of sounds and instruments up to the performer. For Cage, this was essential in his drive to create new music and new experiences, for himself, his performers, especially David Tudor, and his listeners. I appreciate how the four performers in 2014 seem to stick to vintage equipment, and not do everything on iPads. These raw sounds still emit an exciting intensity to me. The other five pieces, including “Cartridge Music,” “Variations I,” and “Fontana Mix with Aria,” are all superb versions of the pieces, and different enough to justify your attention if you’ve heard other versions before. For the performance of “Imaginary Landscape No. 5” for turntables and a variety of LPs, here a variety of classical records and movie soundtracks, everything is vaguely familiar and someone who listens to classical radio programs will no doubt identify more of the constantly changing college parts. I can identify only the Vivaldi. Again, Cage delivers a piece that will be different every time it is played, especially if different records are used, or used in different orders. The use of prerecorded music, the samples, turns what was fixed and boring to Cage, into something always moving, always changing. Like a kaleidoscope for LPs, Cage breaks the music into small fragments, removing them from the musical paradigms they lived in, and putting them into new worlds unthought by any composer, discovered by the listener. I imagine a musical stenographer writing down the testimony of “Imaginary Landscape No. 5.” As a noise musician, I appreciate the noise of these pieces aren’t softened or diluted in any way. I feel somewhat guilty for approving the aesthetic decisions of Worby et al. Other types of records could be used; IDM or hair metal or booty rap. Maybe Cage would appreciate these new experiences, but those choices would be a painful chore for me.
JandekGhost Passing (Corwood) CD

The second of large box sets from Jandek following 2013’s nine CD set of piano solos, The Song Of Morgan. Those nine solos were called nocturnes, here we have duets, called fantasies, between piano and… at first I thought it was a violin, but it has a distinctive electronic character, either a synthesizer or a theremin, but with a thicker sound, as if played through a harmonizer effect. The piano playing is slow, somber and meandering one or two notes, the other voice meanders about, often employing an exaggerated vibrato. Like the Chopin solo piano LPs I have, the music for the most part produces a calming atmosphere, with a few surprising thunderous eruptions in volume, or single note poundings. This is Jandek, so there are no liner notes to describe the intentions or methodologies, or players. A 2009 concert in Baton Rouge paired the man I call Jandek on grand piano with theremin player Sheila Smith. This show has not yet been released so we cannot compare theremin playing styles, but the piano playing resembles the piano playing paired with harp on the Helsinki Saturday release. Is this improvised? Composed? A bit of each? I think your enjoyment of this will depend on how much you enjoy Late Romantic piano music coupled with how much you enjoy the electronic sound of the melody instrument. Eventually, on the fifth disc, Jandek’s voice joins the two instruments speaking and singing the morose and abstract words we have come to expect from this ongoing project that now spans some eighty CDs of highly original material.
Costis Drygianakis[Unclear and Secret] ([self-released]) CD

* Drygianakis returns with another set of long collages that splice together live musicians, recordings, sampled voices, electronics, singing. Nicholas Genital Grinder (Absurd Records) and Christos Chondropoulos are two of contributing musicians. As with his previous releases, the music and tone can change abruptly, and different sources are layered on top of each other. Set into four long movements, the recordings of loud and crunchy noises, stretches of quiet electronic sounds, location recordings, delicate percussion pings, slowly evolve in layers, so that when one layer becomes dominate, the change startles as much an an abrupt transition. This is a music for people like me who enjoy giving their ears and minds a workout. I marvel at how Drygianakis arranges these sounds. One of the samples used is a sniplet of a news story about a state execution of a “retarded man” in Texas. Is this a shout out to me? There are other things that Texas is known for, but Texas governors do like to execute people, but I’ve never voted for these people. Despite this painful reminder of what I can’t change here, the record delights my ears.

Anthony ColemanThe End Of Summer (Tzadik) CD

As his record Pushy Blueness, this record collects Coleman’s chamber compositions, here recorded over two years at the New England Conservatory in Boston. His compositions are eclectic, dynamic and use many repeating pitch cells that lend the pieces a minimalistic air. But there are plenty of variations and deviations from the repeated parts not to limit the range or direction of any of the pieces. “Matter of Operation’s" sprawling scale for clarinet, voice, percussion and other chamber instruments brings to my mind Webern, mid-period Feldman and Braxton’s brash chamber works. Episodic, with many motives occurring at once, quieter sections punctuate with just one or two instruments. Its complexity flavors a restless violence with delicate, beautiful part sprinkled on top. “Whorfian Hypothesis” may refer to an idea in linguistics that language determines or influences thought, which would be apt for this slow piano solo that again reminds me of Feldman or Cage’s “Etudes Australes.” Knowing the language of a composer influences other composers, and here the influence seems clear. “The Taste of Saury” and “Kohayagawa-Ke No Aki (The End Of Summer)” are both more mysterious, with repeated phrases from brass and strings snaking through piano and percussion accompaniment. In the later piece, the music stops for a female voice to intone birdlike calls. Slowly changing repetitions weave through the whole piece, creating a dreamlike state. Coleman mostly conducts here, playing piano only on the two shortest pieces. The musicians are all new to me, perhaps students at the Conservatory, except for Coleman’s friend and sometime collaborator, saxophonist Michaël Attias. We missed the opportunity for an interview with Coleman in 2014 to follow up on our 1994 and 2004 interviews, so we will have much to discuss for the eventual third interview.

Michael Vincent WallerThe South Shore (XI Records) 2xCD

* Its presence on XI Records suggested to me that Waller’s music would be some type of post-Minimal downtown music, but the twenty-one compositions here are anything but. These mainly short small chamber works, many for solos, duos and trios for piano, cello and violin, all inhabit a very pretty, Late Romantic world of simple scales and modes. All of these works could be used in an arthouse film about the life of a late-19th Century English manor. The pretty music is sophisticated and interesting. Echoes of Erik Satie abound. This isn’t the music I normally listen to, but its craftsmanship is solid, never for a moment being either boring, cheaply manipulative, obtuse or plodding as a lot of new classical music I hear on classical radio. It’s refreshing to hear chamber music with emotional content to it without it being obviously manipulative. Christine Kim’s cello is a treat throughout. She performs the four part “Y for Henry Flynt” as if vamping on John Cage’s aptly-named early composition “Dream.” The liner notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny give helpful settings for each of the pieces, this one an old church in the countryside, this one a setting sun, another a sheppard playing flute to his sheep.
Annea LockwoodGround Of Being (Recital) CD

Lockwood is among the rarest of magical sound artists, and I always try to listen to whatever she does. The four pieces on this collection span many of the simple, probing explorations that define her work. “Buoyant” captures the sounds of splashing water, captured for its particular “deliciously pitched plops and gurgles,” and the creaking wood of a dock reacting to a passing ferry. Lockwood’s genius is her ability to not only capture these sounds, but also to link them together, even though they were recorded at different times and places. Presented in a simple, seemingly unprocessed—ignoring the very action of recording—these water sounds become fascinating music. The prepared piano featured in “Ear-Walking Woman” more recalls Lockwood’s early record The Glass World than works by John Cage. We hear much scraping of the strings and mysterious shifting tones (maybe a rubber ball dragged against the strings or wood of the piano?). Some nice muted piano notes are heard, like a wooden wind chime heard in the distance. Lois Svard perfectly brings this open score to life. The liner notes to “Dusk” ask us to listen through a subwoofer than can nicely diffuse frequencies as low at 45Hz. What we hear are underwater “hydrothermal vents, transposed bat calls, and percussionist William Winant playing a tam tam.” If those notes don’t sell this disc to you, I can’t do anything. The title piece again collages sounds from different sources that all deal with a central theme, here death in various aspects. The sound of trees drying out, the resonant frequency of a crypt and Ousmane Kane speaking about the perilous journeys of African migrants. Kane’s words were recorded in 1999 or so, years before recent upheavals in Lybia, Syria and South Sudan that has sent many more Africans and Arabs to Europe in search of more peaceful lives. We also hear a bit of rumbling that sounds like the purring of a cat.
Else Marie PadeElectronic Music 1958-1995 (Important) 2xCD

A wonderful expanded reissue of a 2001 Danish release, itself a compilation of inventive material from 1958 to 1964. Surprisingly, the music does not sound dated at all; she quickly moved beyond simple demonstrations of the new-at-the-time electronic equipment to creative musical compositions. The six part “Faust Suite” uses long, organ-like drones to create a moody atmosphere where higher harmonics are brought in and out of the mix. It sounds like a drone release from the mid-1990s. While some of these works have been released on records over the past fifteen years, why were they not released before then? Because she is not French or German or American? Because she is a woman? I think of all the records and praise given to people like Henri Pousseur or Morton Subotnick, and their work in the 1960s seems flat and dull in comparison to this, Subotnick much more so. It could also be that she was never interested in releasing records. The four-part “Illustrationer,” from 1995, is the newest work and comes from a 2009 release. Eectronic crackles jump through a swirling, atmospheric haze of wind noises in the first part of the suite, “Himmelrummet” (The Firmament). In the more picturesque titled “Havkongens Slot” (The Palace Of The Sea King), we go from sky to murky sounds evoking an underwater environment.
Anthony MooreSecrets of the Blue Bag (Blueprint) CD

Originally subtitled “A Story for John Cage” when it was first released on LP in 1972, these three pieces for small chamber ensemble explore various combinations of the first five notes of the diatonic scale. Cello, two violins, bassoon and wordless soprano voice all play with this limited pitch set. Recorded by Faust producer Uwe Nettelbeck, these melodic experiments predate Brian Eno’s Discreet Music by a few years, and bring to mind insane pieces by Tom Johnson and other OCD minimalists. It’s a very repetitive music, whose pretty charms dig deep into the brain. Try to keep from humming the main theme, a rising set of the five pitches, after a few minutes of listening to it. I jest, but this record could drive certain people into a rage with its persistent, unresolved simplicity. I must admit I was not able to listen all three pieces in one sitting. As opposed to the approach of Tom Johnson in his works Music for 88 and The Chord Catalogue (All The 8178 Chords Possible In One Octave) which set up a sequential working through of all possible combinations of material, Moore’s three Secrets display their numerous changes in more subtle ways, with the other instruments playing the slight variations over the repetitive rising set played on the cello. Anthony Moore, would later work with rock bands Slapp Happy, Henry Cow and the Roger Waters-less Pink Floyd. I did not know until today that he co-wrote “On the Turning Away” and “Learning to Fly.’
Reviews by Josh Ronsen.
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