Posts Tagged ‘Neoclassical’

CD Epicentre Editions EPI-2101

Christopher Nosnibor

It’s testament to his degree of innovation and influence that John Cage’s works remain a source of fascination for so many almost 30 years after his death. Few composers have reached across so many fields, let alone a composer as radical and overtly experimental. But Cage singlehandedly broke all the ground, especially when it came to exploring elements of the random, of the relationship between the performance and the audience, and of incorporating strands of philosophy into the creative process.

This recording of Variations VII is very much an unadulterated document of a specific event, best detailed in the liner notes:

Variations VII was created by John Cage to be performed at a special event, 9 Evenings, Theatre & Engineering, held from 13th to 23rd October 1966 in New York and in which a team of engineers, led by Billy Klüver, worked with ten artists from the American “avant-garde”, with the aim of enabling them to extend their exploration of the possibilities of electronics in their own art. Here is how John Cage described this piece in the programme for the event:

« It is a piece of music, Variations VII, indeterminate in form and detail, making use of the sound system which has been devised collectively for this festival, further making use of modulation means organized by David Tudor, using as sound sources only those sounds which are in the air at the moment of performance, picked up via the communication bands, telephone lines, microphones together with, instead of musical instruments, a variety of household appliances, and frequency generators. »

And so ‘Intro’ is four minutes of audience chatter, a throng of conversations, all in French, over and across one another. It may feel superfluous to some, but in so many ways, it’s integral to the experience. It not only captures the moments before the performance as it happened, but also transports the listener there, and reminds us that this is not a studio work, designed to capture some kind of perfect realisation of the piece for all time. There is no trickery or manipulation after the fact: this is a live performance, in front of a live audience, something that happened in the moment, and the moment is all there is, and the life of the piece is tied to that specific moment. And then, there is the fact that Variations VII is, effectively, about chatter.

Crackles of static, whistles and whines rent the air as the performance begins; the sound of radio dials turning, tuning in, finding – or failing to find – the right wavelength. Hums, hisses, and snippets of conversations, fragments of music. Whups and whirs, shill shards of feedback and blizzards of white noise emerge from a myriad pieces of sound, booming yawns of interference all criss-crossing over one another in a disorienting real-time sonic collage. Machines grind, babies cry, there are explosive, thunderous blasts of distortion, It’s like walking down a busy street, hearing pieces of conversation, radios blaring from cars, engines revving, and the parallels with William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, for those familiar, are clear. This replicates the experience of life in real-time, and real-time experience is not linear, but simultaneous: a plane flies overhead and you catch sight of an advertisement, and a reflection of a face in a shop window while conducting a conversation, and all around, other people conduct their own conversations…

The mechanics of it are complex and ambitious, but also typical of Cage’s approach to composition:

‘Ten telephone lines connected to the sounds of ten different locations in New York City. History has taught us that one of the first uses of the telephone at the end of the 19th century was, besides transporting voices, the live re-transmission of concert performances of opera. A few privileged listeners could therefore listen to the music in their own homes. Several decades later, John Cage reversed this, so to speak, by inviting the sounds of several distant environments into the concert venue!’

And so it is that the 1966 piece was performed live once more on August 15th, 2020 at the festival Le Bruit de la Musique. The performance lasts for an hour and eight minutes, during which time we’re subjected to a bewildering array of sounds, unconnected, disparate, all completely independent of one another, uncoordinated, random, haphazard and hither and thither. It’s a bewildering experience: not a lot happens, but at the same time, everything happens, a lot of it simultaneously. For the duration of the performance, the spell remains unbroken. For some reason that I really can’t explain, I find myself sitting, ears pricked, on tenterhooks, listening out for details. Towards the end, a blitzkrieg of overlapping extranea build to a tempestuous tumult of harsh noise that sounds like Throbbing Gristle a whole decade before their conception. And as it gradually tapers down, a cough from the audience cuts through the quiet – but it’s not quite finished. We wait, on edge.

Suddenly, there is silence.

Only when the performance ends is the tension broken.

There is a pause, a few seconds of uncertainty, before the applause breaks. There are a few whoops, but mostly, it’s polite. Enthusiastic, but polite. There is no chatter now. One suspects that having witnessed this – bearing in mind that it’s 1966 – many would have been simply stunned of vocabulary. The era may have been accustomed to all kinds of newness, all kinds of shocking, taboo-breaking art, but this…?

Variations VII hasn’t dated, and not lonely does it still sound contemporary, it remains incredibly relevant: if anything, its relevance is greater in 2021 than it was in 1966, perfectly recreating the experience of total media and sensory overload. Never mind The Beatles, here’s John Cage.

Lamour Records / Purlieu Recordings

Christopher Nosnibor

Spending most evenings immersing myself in an array of weird and wonderful and sometimes not so wonderful noise, this album came as a real surprise. The accompanying text does little to prepare the listener for such a gentle and exquisite collection of cinematic neoclassical compositions.

And yet the liner notes are precisely why Transformation is surprising, because all is not as it seems, explaining that ‘The album Transformation challenges the boundaries of human and machine, the physical and the artificial, the feasible and the impossible. The result is a thoughtful and true emotional storm where the piano forms the basis for an opposite pole between sound and playing technique. When the sound is real, it is played with inhuman technology. When played by hand, the sound moves outside the spectrum of the physical piano. What role does "lying" play for the listener?’ And what exactly are we listening to here?

It’s impossible to distinguish organs and organic sounds from synthesised or sampled approximations, and while the human / inhuman / orchestral /electronic sounds are impossible to distinguish – is that piano, performed by a musician with a real passion and a deep sense of drama, creating rippling waves of notes, or is it all so much programming? Listening to ‘Skeppsrå’, it sounds real. It feels real. I want it to be real. Can I therefore simply not believe that it’s real and accept it?

It’s not quite as straightforward as that. Once you’re aware of something, it’s impossible to erase that awareness. You want to feel as though you’re tapping into something real, otherwise it’s just muzak, film music made to fill a space and manipulate an emotional response to what may otherwise be a blandly-shot scene.

‘Tradition’ sounds like the product of synthesised sounds, while the brooding sonorous atmospherics of ‘Mekanik’ are simply other-worldly, while ‘Skogsrå’ is another magnificently supple slice of post-rock flavoured ambience that swirls and soars towards the stratosphere.

There’s no questioning that the elegiac solo piano piece, ‘Artikulation’ a beautifully poised piece, understated yet rich and immersive, and likewise ‘Klinga’ which follows. But are those ‘wrong’ notes simply artifice? Are they programmed in to create ‘imperfections’ in order to create a sense of humanity and therefore a greater ‘trust’ in the machine? Or is this an example of an openness about human error? I’m not convinced: why would any musician play to highlight their flaws? But this is the challenge and the dilemma: what and who do you trust?

Trust nothing and trust no-one: but do trust me when I say that Transformation is a fascinating and most listenable work.

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Icarus Records i008 – 1st December 2019

Christopher Nosnibor

This is one of those albums, recorded live, that contains continuous sound. This makes sense in context: when improvising a set that’s determined by duration rather than compositions. There is necessarily an element of artifice and restriction around time-constrained ‘slots’. This isn’t necessarily the issue here: Icarus is a radio show, a concert organisation and a record label that focuses on experimental music, contemporary classical and electronica. For more than 10 years, this weekly radio show on Urgent.fm, a university radio station in Ghent, Belgium, invites artists to record live sessions on a monthly basis. Over the years, more than 60 Icarus Live Sessions have been recorded, and the library is still growing.

Five-piece instrumental collective BOW – who play a selection of cellos violins, and, as the name suggests, bowed instruments – played Icarus’ 59th live session in March 2019, and is the first to be released, as a cassette and download.

At times truly beautiful, at others dark and difficult, with manifold shades in between, many of which explore dissonant, challenging sonic spaces that test the listener’s capacity in a host of ways as things veer out of sumptuous classical territory and into dramatic discord, Bow lead the listener through succession of passages. The final minutes are laden with drama, transitioning from a soft jazz swing into a raging tempest of scraping string-bleeding trauma, a surging crescendo that assails the senses with a sustained intensity. This is improvisation at its best, where a collective can read one another and the immediate space around them to not only coalesce each segment and segue between them naturally and intuitively, but to form an overall structure from beginning to end that feels planned, arranged, co-ordinated.

There’s a bonus track on the cassette release: another half-hour of difficult, dissonant drones which begin as a brooding chamber orchestra work and evolves – or perhaps more accurately mutates -into something less graceful but altogether more powerful.

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Bearsuit Records – 23rd September 2017

James Wells

Multi-instrumentalist Hayato Takeuchi hails from Japan. Beyond that, I know nothing in terms of biography. No that it matters. It’s all about the music, and the music on this EP is… different. Different from what? Pretty much everything. Yes, it’s a typical Bearsuit Records release.

The five tracks on offer here are dizzying, bewildering, multitonal works which play with time signatures and textures at the same time. There are all shades of oddness here, from the whistling loop over wonky synths and a sparse beat on the piano-led ‘Usan Kosao No Usoushiki’, and the playful theatrical noodles of ‘Mr Henderson No Ai To Replica’ is a fairground waltz that skips lightly through a space that revels in experimentalism. Weird and woozy, dramatic and quirky are Takeuchi’s key themes here. The final track, ‘Anata To Watashi No Kyoukaisen’ sides gracefully into crystalline, cloudlike ambience which tapers and turns subtly in a space of its own creation.

There’s no way of putting a tag on this that’s in any way informative, and to pick it apart is to destroy its intrigue. Weird and special, and special in its weirdness.

AAA

Hayato Takeuchi

24th August 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

Although he’s released two solo albums under the guise of Wiekie, Adam Weikert is perhaps best known as the drummer of Her Name is Calla. This first release under his own name marks something of a departure, and given its inspiration and evolution, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to say that Weikert’s decision to release an album as ‘himself’ represents a stripping away of the layers of artistry to reveal a work which is more directly personal.

The blurbage contextualises the release as follows: ‘Born years ago as response to cope with a traumatic event of his youth, and revived years later after ill health forced Adam to temporarily stop singing – USIDOH showcases the scattered fragments of poems alongside happenstantial Neoclassically themed works, creating a unique and personal experience.’

Attempts to unravel the meaning of the album’s title, which I take to be more of an initialism than an acronym, during the writing of this review bore little fruit of use. The poems – which are contained in an 80-pagebook which accompany the physical release – are considerably more instructive as to the true meaning of the project. That isn’t to say they’re in alignment with the album’s eleven (instrumental) tracks, because the poems – plural – essentially blur into a single, drifting longform work which has its own shape and tempo, as well as illustrations which augment rather than impinge on the experience. That is to say, the two elements of the project are complimentary rather than directly parallel. Nevertheless, the poems are absolutely integral to the overall experience, rendering USIDOH more of a multimedia work than simply a musical piece.

The words are weighty and the presentation is not only highly visual but intrinsic to the execution. Just as the music on USIDOH draws on aspects of the postmodern and the avant-garde within its broadly neoclassical framework – Wiekert conjures a vast array of atmospheres and emotions through the use of abstraction and semi-ambient field recordings and found snippets in conjunction with mewling saw, sweeping strings, brooding piano and nagging banjo – so the poems pull on high modernism, postmodernism and concrete poetry to further accentuate the lines, disparate and abstract yet unified by virtue of emanating from the same mind, over a period spanning the six years from 2005 to 2011.

‘Die Puppe’ weaves in and out of experimental atmospherics, before ‘Vardøhus Festning’ forges an imposing, imperious mood. ‘Sloth’ is a simply beautiful piano composition, which rolls and drifts mellifluously. There’s almost a playfulness about ‘A Constant Repose’, which first aired via YouTube aired a couple of months ago, the nimble piano work affecting a lightness of mood. But beneath it lies a subtle undercurrent of nostalgic melancholy. And if anything, it’s this emotional layering and the depth of nuance and detail which makes USIDOH such an appealing and compelling work, musically.

As a complete package, there’s a lot to unravel. USIDOH is very much art: Wiekert has poured everything into this, and it shows. There are times when it’s not easy to penetrate, but that in itself is reason to set aside some time to explore a work that multifaceted, deep and resonant, and achieves this without slipping into pretentiousness. There’s no question that USIDOH is ambitious, but Wiekert succeeds in delivering something which conveys the vision.

USIDOH

Hubro – HUBROCD2582 – 25th November 2016

Christopher Nosnibor

Gathering pieces composed over the span of some thirteen years, Sound of Horse provides an insight into the compositional methodology of Laurence Crane, with each of the pieces performed by the shifting lineups of the Norwegian Asamimasa ensemble.

It begins with ‘John White in Berlin’ (2003), a long, low, ominous rumbling drone-based composition for electric guitar, cello, percussion and piano. The piano is sparse and way off in the distance. The strains of guitar feedback scrape at the senses in contrast to the low, almost subsonic rippling bass hum: it builds tension, but eventually this plateaus. There’s a daring fragility to the composition, but there’s little by way of movement or progression and little to really get a grip on. ‘Riis’ (1996), for clarinet, cello and electric organ manifests first as a cloud of ambience, from which elongated organ notes pipe a slow, majestic sound, a sort of semi-ambient church muzak. It’s an imposing work, as much by virtue of the instrumentation as the composition, although Crane does cast an immersive atmosphere.

The three ‘Events’ pieces for voice, three clarinets and a vibraphone move further into the realms of the spiritual, the wordless vocals are hushed, reverent, brushed with a celestial hue radiating upwards as they entwine with the sparse, soft-edged instrumentation. It’s the sound of a dark corner, illuminated by flickering candlelight. These pieces may be short, but they’re quietly powerful, moving.

The title track consists of seven parts spanning a full twenty minutes. It sounds nothing like any horse. With clarinet, bass clarinet, acoustic and electric guitar, as well as percussion and cello, the pieces offer a greater range of texture and tone than the other pieces, and at times offer more conventional melodic passages. Chords are strummed in slow repetition while the wind instruments make minor chord progressions underscoring an atmosphere of brooding melancholy and, in places, trepidatious uncertainty. Choppy electric guitars and thumping drums on the fourth section mark the biggest divergence from the overall form of not just the suite, but the album as a whole, and hint almost toward an assimilation of the elements of rock music, albeit in its most deconstructed and experimental form.

Precisely how to summarise what this album ‘does’ is immensely challenging, and equally, it’s not particularly clear what its purpose is to convey. It isn’t that the compositions lack finesse, but they do, all too often, lack focus. While Sound of Horse is a collection, there seems to be little connection, stylistically, between the pieces, giving it something of a scrapbook feel. But what to make of it? I dunno. Maybe it needs time. Maybe it need different ears. Maybe I need a different headspace. But at the time of writing, I’ve got little more than a shrug.

Laurnce Crane - Sound of Horse

Metropolis Records – 12th August 2016

Christopher Nosnibor

It’s been a full thirty years since Sam Rosenthal began operating as Black Tape for a Blue Girl. Over that time, there have been ten albums showcasing ethereal, gothic (in the theatrical, brooding sense, rather than goth-rock sense) and dark ambient sounds which established them as pioneers of American darkwave. Perhaps it’s because of their vanguard position that they’ve maintained a relatively modest cult status in the shade of various associated acts and artists they’ve influenced.

These Fleeting Moments, their first album in seven years and released to coincide with their thirtieth anniversary, sees the return of original vocalist Oscar Herrera, after a seventeen-year hiatus from music. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the album represents something of a return to the roots of Black Tape for a Blue Girl, a name which conjures uncomfortable images while simultaneously evoking doomed romance and the extremities of twisted devotion.

Opening the album with a seventeen-minute behemoth is a pretty bold move. ‘The Vastness of Life’ encapsulates its own essence within its title: a track that builds from a brooding neofolk strum and drifts through a succession of transitions through weeping string and passages and segments of wispy, ethereal ambience, it’s an epic journey which is practically an album in its own right. The twin vocalists emote achingly and pour every last drop of soul into these rarefied moments. Where could any album go from there? With the exception of ‘Meditation on the Skeleton’, with its ten-minute running time, the remaining twelve tracks are relatively concise, with ‘Limitless’ a quintessential example of the 90s goth darkwave sound as exemplified by the likes of Every New Dead Ghost and Suspiria: fractal Cure-esque guitars reverberate around cold synths by way of a backdrop to a melodramatic baritone vocal delivery. But neither track individually represents These Fleeting Moments as a whole. In fact, no one track does, and the album’s diversity is quite something, spanning shoegaze and folk and neoclassical, often simultaneously.

Much of the instrumentation is organic and natural-sounding, with piano and strings at the heart of many of the compositions. These are used to diverse effect, from the sparse, haunting moorlands of ‘Please Don’t Go’ to the insistent throb of ‘Six Thirteen’. But for all the range, all of the grace and elegance, a darkness hangs over every piece: ‘Bike Shop’ is no whimsical indie pop ditty, and elsewhere, ‘You’re Inside Me’ invites comparisons to both Scott Walker and Marc Almond, and ‘Zug Ko-In’ is a slow-turning hypnotic track which calls to mind both The Doors and more recent Swans and features a soaring guitar solo.

It’s an album which is more exploratory and expressive than linear: the track flow together to form a much greater whole, forging a work that’s immersive and meditative. Yes, it’s an album one listens to, and it’s not one to dip in and out of or select highlight tracks from: rather, it’s an album to make time stand still and to get lost in.

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