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.
2009 of course wasn’t only about new releases, I spent plenty of time listening to music released earlier, sometimes much earlier. Of course I also caught up on some releases I missed from the previous year, several of which should have made my list that year. Most egregiously missing was this amazing DVD of John Cage’sVariations VII from the 9 Evenings: Theatre & Enginnering program. This disc was released mid 2008 and I had been eagerly awaiting it’s release for weeks. I wrote an entry on this as well as the other 9 Evenings release to date Robert Rauschenberg’sOpen Score in this post. As of this disc coming out, this seminal performance of this Cage piece had never been released and had remained unheard since the performance. The DVD contains a documentary made up of the color and black and white film that they shot (alas not the entire performance) as well as a audio only track of one of the two performances. The music is raucous, filled with the noises of the city from numerous open phones, plus tables filled with Tudor and Cage’s electronics as well as contact mic’d everyday objects (such as blenders) triggered by movement, optical sensors and the like. For around eighty minutes layers of sound, cacophonous at times, haunting at others fully occupies the soundworld. It is one of those rare historical moments that is not just significant but is excellent music. The video is fascinating, a chance to see the tables of equipment and Cage and Tudor working them along with other assistants and musicians. The tangles of wires, the Bell Labs engineers striving to keep the lines open and the experimental electronics working and way behind the lights a packed house to see this radical music. The series will eventually contain all of the pieces that were performed at the seminal 9 Evenings with David Tudor’s Bandoneon ! up next. This one of very few unavailable Tudor compositions (and an early important one), were I to do a list next year, would be sure to feature on it, if not top it.
I’d been aware of the Neos label for awhile, but it wasn’t until the first part of 2009 that I actually picked up a couple of their releases that had been on my “to buy” list for a long time. These were two albums of works by American experimental composers with Munich based Sabine Liebner playing piano. I’d heard a few pieces previously by Liebner and have been long impressed with her touch at the piano. Her recording of John Cage’s Music for Piano 1-84 is easily the album I listened to the most this year. I am of course quite familiar with numerous of these pieces from David Tudor’s excellent recordings (beautifully collected on the essential Edition RZ release David Tudor: Music for Piano) but there doesn’t seem to be a complete recording of the entire set of Music for Piano by Tudor. Additionally Liebner performs these pieces in a dramatically different way then Tudor: many of these pieces allow for the tempo and dynamics to be left to the performer and Liebner choses a soft, spacious, almost Feldman like approach. The notes were worked out with systems utilizing the imperfections in paper and there are various other instructions (especially in the later pieces) that allow for longer silences, overlapping pieces and use of extended techniques and preparations. This makes this album for me one of those perfect ones to listen to in various contexts: intently on my primary stereo, as background while reading or, and this most often, put on as I’d go to sleep. It rewards close attention with its pauses, variety of sounds, controlled randomness and presence, but also can meld with the background allowing one to engage in other tasks or drift off to sleep. One of the things that makes Cage’s compositions so wonderful is that they provide and endless amount of variety inside an always recognizably Cagean framework. This recording of these pieces complements the Tudor’s versions perfectly and aptly demonstrates the veracity of this statement.
The second of the Sabine Liebner Neos albums I acquired was Christian Wolff Piano Pieces which was originally released May of 2008. I have long loved Wolff’s music, especially his piano pieces, but I’d heard few recordings of these beyond a few early pieces recorded by Tudor (again see the Edition RZDavid Tudor: Music for Piano), the fantastic John Tilbury recording, Christian Wolff Early piano music 1951-1961 on Matchless and a Mode recording of the Tilbury Pieces. Wolff’s music does not lend itself to glib assessments and I’ve often resisted writing much about it for this very reason. The pieces on this disc are a series of pieces that Wolff had dedicated to John Tilbury and are appropriately enough titled Tilbury 1-III along with Snowdrop and 15 very short pieces under the heading Keyboard Miscellany. Now I was familiar with Tilbury I-III and Snowdrop from the very fine Mode recording of the Tilbury Pieces (complete) (which contains two additional Tilbury pieces, Tilbury IV and V that aren’t solo piano and thus not on this recording) and again this performance is a beautiful compliment to that recording. The Tilbury Pieces and Snowdrop are composed using chance techniques but there doesn’t seem to be much (if any) indeterminacy of performance beyond that found in performance of all composed music: differences from the instruments, the room, the recording techniques and of course the performer. These are wonderful pieces that seem to capture Tilbury’s unrivaled patience and touch at the piano, distilled into gentle yet powerful music. The Keyboard Miscellany are quite interesting with greater diversity of dynamics, tempos and sounds then the Tilbury Pieces. They seem to be little sketches, ideas that Wolff was playing with that he felt were interesting enough to jot down, if not expand into an entire piece. But buried amongst the miscellany is the sublime Variations on Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 a ten minute piece that takes Feldman’s composition to place that only Wolff would have. A wonderful little congruence of these two composers and friends of the New York School.
There were of course many more albums I caught up on in 2009 but these three, considering how much plays they got and how much I love them I felt deserved to be highlighted. If they slipped beneath your radar as well, consider it well worth rectifying.
These were my favorite recordings of 2007. The usual caveats apply: didn’t hear everything, personal opinion yadda yadda yadda. My goals are a bit different in this list as in years past – I am making even a lesser claim then normal on any sort of “best of” status. No, what these recordings represent to me was the music that I found interesting this year. This is different then good or bad as something can be both. A lot of things are interesting in their potential, direction or development. So why this focus for this year? Primarily because it is what I look for in music, why the merely beautiful, well done or true to form music rarely transcends from those descriptions to truly great music. Of course this is again subjective, these are interesting to me, others may (and hell probably are) be diametrically opposed in what they find interesting. The reasons I give for their interest to me are simply meant as an insight into my perspective. Again these are my opinion and while you may disagree with them, they are what informs my interest in a given album. Also worthy of note I make no effort to separate by genre, reissue, format or any of that, it just had to come out in some form this year. A further note on ordering; I don’t weigh all of these equally for sure but it definitely wasn’t the guiding principle as to how things are presented here (though the first few listed are definitely my favorites).
This year I really got into the music of The New York School, especially John Cage and David Tudor. Oh I’d been listening to them all for some time (especially Feldman) but the Cage festival I attended in Canada in October 2006 demonstrated to me once and for all that there was a lot more to Cage then his ideas; he made amazing music across his entire career. The man who was responsible for realizing so much of the music of the New York School was David Tudor. Considering how open ended and up to the performer much of this music was, the performer can often be thought of as co-composer of any given interpretation. In David Tudor’s case he was an exemplary composer in his own right and these pieces brought that out in him. Conveniently as my interest (or obsession even) in this area was growing the ever excellent Edition RZ label issued one of their fantastic retrospective releases on David Tudor. These CDs are an odd duck in that they are usually entirely archival material, but assembled into a new and unique release. Usually it is out of print material and obviously stuff they can get the rights to, but they usually present a very thorough overview of an artists career. This set focuses on Tudors piano music, in particular that which requires a large degree of input by the performer. Thus a lot of his earlier work interpreting the likes of Wolpe, Stockhausen and so on is not part of this set, nor is his later pure electronics work, where his role as composer really flourished. It is of limited scope and considering how much he recorded that is a wise choice. But for that scope this set does an impeccable job.
The highlight of this set is Tudor’s realization of John Cage’s Variations II a twenty-six minute piece that opens disc two. This recording, which requires the performer to assemble a score beforehand from a set of material, is justly considered a co-composition between Cage and Tudor. Tudor took an extreme tact in his assembling of the score, reducing it to a binary system of control and chaos that left most of the sonic decisions to the performance itself. Additionally he extensively prepared the piano, especially in terms of amplification with a variety of microphones, pickups, transducers and the like. This unstable instrument, constantly on the edge of feeding back was then masterfully directed into this amazing realization whose performance in 1961 must have seemed to have been from another planet (read more about Tudors realization of this piece in this essay). But this piece isn’t all that is in this set and it is the wealth of amazing music in this set that makes this the most essential release of the year. Absolutely fantastic versions of several of Cages difficult Music for Piano pieces, the earlier and while less radical still amazing Variations I and the always stunning Winter Music. Three takes on Christian Wolff’s Duo for Pianists I and Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos give us a taste of works by two other crucial member of the New York school . Finally a piece by Busotti dedicated to Tudor rounds out the collection with a composer outside of the New York School that just underscores his flexibility and skill. Good music all here and the whole set does very well to document Tudors pre-electronics pianism.
Constant reassessment can keep one’s ideas relevant and music fresh and Keith Rowe exemplifies this perhaps more then any other musician I’m aware of. For decades he has questioned his principles and practices and has remained on the forefront of engaging music this whole time. The Room, a solo that comes direct from this personal reassessment and Sight, a large ensemble acting on an idea that is the product of this engagement. I think that it is these two aspects that demonstrate how vital Keith has remained after all of these years. Introspection and documentation of ones reevaluations and group projects based on ideas that are absolutely au courant demonstrate the fully engaged artistic mind and that the results of these are so high caliber shows the creativity and commitment. Another aspect is that these two projects were inspired in part by the modern painters Rothko and Twombly and Keith’s reactions to them. Keith’s connections to the visual arts is a major component of his music and clearly a constant source of inspiration. The difference between music which operates in time versus a painting which can be apprehended (if not fully understood) in a flash is I think vital. Keith often speaks of being in the moment with music as a goal of the performer which in way you could read as apprehending the music as a painting. Perhaps it is an attempt to reconcile music and painting that motivates these projects and keeps them so lively. Finally if one considers the constraints that Keith place upon himself and others for these projects: the constant addition and reduction of his personal setup and trying to make music explicitly to the natural constraint of the room itself. For sight it was five minutes of sound over an hour under the proviso that you take in account the input of your collaborators – virtual listening as it were. It is these aspects, plus a continual willingness to experiment that has kept Keith’s work constantly interesting and music I will avidly follow for as long as he produces it.
There are ways in which this release is the most innovative and creative on this list. While piobreached, that most aged of Scottish piping traditions would not seem to amenable to such conceits, especially if you make no attempt to modernize it, what Allan has done here is amazing. It is too long a history to go into much detail here (if interested William Donaldson’s, The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950, is the definitive recounting) but suffice it to say that hundreds of years of militarization, zealous foundations, ill founded competition and incompetent notation has led to a loss of the original character, variation and musicality that was so widely reported of the art in early manuscripts. There has in the last few decades been an attempt to rectify this by turning to the earliest manuscripts (which demonstrate the variety), historically informed instruments, the historical accountings and other arts that did not undergo such rigorous standardization. Allan MacDonald has been at the forefront of that and along with the research and the use of historical mss he has used his own Gaelic upbringing and most importantly Gaelic song to try to recapture some of that musicality. We’ll never really know how true to the past this really is but the music speaks for itself: it is beautiful and powerful in measure and sparkling with life. A triumph by any standard and shows that while probably still far removed from how these pieces were originally performed this amazing music is still fascinating.
Mitsuhiro Yoshimura projects on ((h)ear rings):
Mitsuhiro Yoshimura – and so on Mitsuhiro Yoshimura/Taku Sugimoto – not BGM and so on
The big discovery this year, of actual new music, was the music of Mitsuhiro Yoshimura. It started off as a rumor in a chat room, of a new artist working in a pared down style, but not in the post-Sugimoto disappearing up ones own navel or in the post-Fluxus hijinks that seem to have captivate much of the Japanese scene. No the story was that Yoshimura performed with just a room mic and a pair of headphones, creating a tight feedback loop modulated by the room itself. This pretty much turned out to be the case and early this year we got the first of two albums he would put out this year: and so on. The feedback from this method is very shrill and yet rich from the room resonance. On a powerful stereo this would fill the room with a sound that you could feel throughout your body. Its high and piercing but there are currents of low end that are more felt then anything else. And it is relentless music, turned on and allowed to simply run its course. Toward the end of the year we got a second dose of Yoshimura, this time in collaboration with Taku Sugimoto. Taku limits himself to playing a short segment of prerecorded jazz, some sound effects and moving about the room. These simple actions disrupt the room feedback and add incredibly subtle but very rich details to Yoshimuras relentless sound. With Yoshimura’s tones playing through the entire recording, even as the audience walks in, applauds at the end and shuffles out it never stops. Really an interesting documentation of an event. Reports of more and varied collaborations with Yoshimura are tantalizing and documentation of these one of the more anticipated events of 2008.
Sachiko has always worked in two basic styles: continuous long tones from one or more oscillator and a more cut-up, twittery style that incorporates the sounds of turning the devices on and off along with the sharp busts of pure tones. In live shows, especially in collaborations, she tends to work with both methods as the situation demands. On her solo CDs, she tends to take a single tact and work with it for the duration and both of these methods have made their appearance. Salon de Sachiko is her second full length solo CD put out under the IMJ umbrella and it continues to follow this trend. Her previous outing, Bar Sachiko, was a long continuous tones for the duration of the CD and Salon de Sachiko is a CD length piece of the twittery style. It is interesting these two discs, both titled as a location (a bar and a salon) that the music is meant to be thought of as background for. The long continuous tones of Bar could be thought of as the continual roar of a bar with its intermingled conversation and noise. The twittering, cut up sounds, with gaps, pauses, false starts and overlaps can be thought of like the interweaving pattern of the chatter of a salon. Or perhaps these sounds would simply be the ones that would fit into those situations, accompany them as opposed to dominating or replacing them. That Sachiko’s music, built from such simple elements, continues to inspire these questions, continues to reward the listener is why I continue to keep a high interest in her work. After a bit of a lull in releases it is good to see her back and in top form.
Prior to this year I hadn’t heard anything from Nate Wooley. At this years Seattle Improvised Music Festival that all changed and I heard a number of fantastic sets from him and was compelled to pick up several recordings. In a short time he went from unheard of to a favorite trumpet player. He works in the extended vein as do many other interesting trumpeters, but these techniques are applied in a fascinating way. He works often with simple sounds repeated for long durations, overlaying of multiple sounds, silences and some pretty unique uses of simple mutes. On this recording, my favorite of those I’ve been able to hear, he uses these materials and possibly more. It sounds like the use of some electronics or studio editing as well but whatever it is this is an incredibly well crafted twenty minute piece. Ringing tones, pops, strange oscillations (looped beating tones maybe) set in spaces that are long enough to emphasize the sounds and create a structure with their placement but not so long as to be the dominate feature. There are no end of solo trumpet albums but this one has held my attention by not so much focusing on sound but on structure.
Annette Krebs/Robin Hayward – sgraffito (no label)
The first thing that strikes me about this disc is that the typical roles are reversed here. In these wind/electronics collaborations it is so often the case that the electronicist provides longer events that the the winds then accent, work against, compliment or solo above. In this case Annette, playing table top guitar, radio, laptop and electronics mostly works with short ephemeral events and Robin on tuba responds with longer tones, rattly sequences and grinding sputters. The other thing, that one often notes in the playing of Annette Krebs, is the near arbitrariness of her sounds. Its not that she has ceded control to some sort of stochastic process, on the contrary she seems to be in complete control of the generated sounds. Its more that they surprise her in how they come out a much as they do the listener. Her use of radio seems to be much more in the Cagean vein of setting it and taking what one is given and this combined with the short bursts that she uses gives even more of this feel of arbitrariness. The overall effect of this, combined with Robin’s very extended tuba playing is one of a scattering of sounds across a field almost like marbles tossed onto a table to roll, collide, fall off or stop where they will. Fascinating and continually engaging, this is music that you can lose yourself into at a decent volume or put on as the background to a walk and let it disappear into the surroundings.
I came rather late to Eliane Radigue’s music which is odd as I’ve long been a fan of both minimalism and analog synthesizers but I eventually found my way there with a very reasonably priced copy of her masterwork Adnos I-III. Since then I have followed her career with much enthusiasm picking up new things as they come out and picking up her back catalog. These two historical documents, both double CD sets were released this year and filled in some crucial gaps. Jetsun Mila, originally put out on cassette by Lovely was in much need of a reissue. This one is not unfamiliar sounding to those who have heard Adnos I-III or Trilogie de Morte – overlapped tones from the Arp 2600 creates a sustained, but always shifting musical soundscape that is easy to lose oneself in. A beautiful piece of music but of even more interest to me was the release of the double cd CHRY-PTUS. Some of her earliest material it has a rougher, rawer edge to while still clearly pointing the way to the soundscapes that we have come to expect. The music here is generated on Buchla synthesizers instead of her usual ARPs and point to the generality of her principles beyond the features of the instrumentations (while all analog synthesizers share the same basic components they vary in many aspects, including control, tone, modulation features and so on). The set contains four versions of the piece two historical and two more recent (and in one case performed by ) each of the two sets which can (but do not have to be) played simultaneously. I have to admit not trying the overlapping playthrough yet, but I’m intrigued to do so. These releases continue to unfold the ever intriguing story of this oft overlooked contemporary composer.
Morton Feldman – String Quartet performed by the Ives Ensemble (hatART)
I have the Naxos release of Feldman’s first String Quartet as performed by the Group for Contemporary Music, but on word of a new recording by the always excellent Ives Ensemble I couldn’t resist. I have to say that while I had no particular complaints with the Naxos recording (barring it being a somewhat hissy recording) this one is far more to my liking. The instruments are so present in this recording it is as if the quartet is in the corner of your bedroom. The Ives Ensemble manages to capture that dry scraping sound that Feldman often required and their interpretation of the dynamics just seems so much more alive to me. There is a section toward the middle where it becomes quite vigorous, loud and aggressive that is almost disturbing in the Ives performance, a far more dramatic and powerful effect to me. While a much shorter work (still lasting well over an hour in duration) then Feldman’s forthcoming epic pieces this first string quartet is a fantastic piece in Feldman’s catalog. In many ways it almost feels like his epic String Quartet (II) compressed into a mere 80 minutes. I have been listening to a lot of Feldman over the last half dozen years and my interest has not yet begun to wane. I tend to avoid re-purchasing pieces that I already own in order to get something I have yet to hear. But sometimes it is justified and the search for a favored recording of a piece can itself lead to additional revelations.
Christopher DeLaurenti – Favorite Intermissions (GD Stereo)
This album is easiest understood as a concept album: serupticously record the sounds before and after the performances in various concert halls. The problem with most concept albums is that the concept is often more interesting then the results. With Favorite Intermissions that is not only not that case, the results are actually far more interesting the the concept. With a classical music concert when the doors open you get several interesting elements. First of all the audience moving in, the light conversation as they wait for the lights to dim, the usual background noise. Additionally members of the orchestra come out to tune up, warm up, do a bit of practicing or simply to get ready to perform. You’ll hear snippets of scales, parts of pieces that will be played on that night or totally disconnected pieces. Sometimes even riffing off others activities, improvisations, or impromptu chamber recitals. All of this with the sound of the audience movement and conversation layered in. This makes for a fascinating juxtaposition that brings to mind forms of musique concrete, layered field recordings and even cut up styles of composition. There is so much going on in this and yes there is an inherent musicality to each “intermission” that I have come back to this again and again over the year, always fascinated, bemused and delighted. Another delicious feature of this album is its cover art parody of the classic Deutsche Grammophon style. Alas DG was not as amused and the label was forced to remove those distinguishing features in remaining stock.
5 Modules series (Manual)
5 modules I: Ryu Hankil/Jin Sangtae/Choi Joonyong
5 modules II: Hong Chulki – Surface and Feedback
5 modules III: Ryu Hankil/Taku Unami/Jin Sangtae/Mattin
5 modules IV: Jin Sangtae/Park Seungjun
I say with no hyperbole that the small Korean scene is the most exciting and interesting scene that I at least am aware of. The stalwarts of Vienna and Japan have for the most part regressed into pop and retreated into inward facing post-fluxusism respectively. The post-AMM axis continues to make strong music that is always forward looking, connected and evolving, but evolution is not revolution and thus surprises are few. Korea though, sprung up from seemingly nowhere with a post-noise, post-free improv, internet culture its music influenced by Japan, American ex-pats and the global dissemination of all sounds. There has been a lot of releases from this axis from Manual, Balloon & Needle and they are all filled with a similar energy and an all encompassing scope. The 5 modules series on Manual, five cd-rs all told (one left to go) I think captures the sound and the range of this group of musicians the best. Noisy at times, unexpected, chaotic even willfully banal these four discs show a scene that is jumping ahead by leaps and bounds even as it throws off its roots and absorbs its influences.
This was one of the last recordings I heard this year and Iwas immediately was taken by it. Three listens on the day I got it and several more over the next couple days and it made it’s way onto this list. A duo of violin and inside/prepared piano this recording demonstrates that there is plenty of life left in these most traditional of traditional instruments. The sound scape reminds me a lot of the experimental composers that I have listened so much to of late, Cage and Feldman especially. The beginning of the single 38 minute piece Tisha’s piano has that percussive prepared piano sound of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and Angharad’s violin often has that flat, dry sound that Feldman often used. In fact at times the piece feels like an improvised Feldman piece, with the dry scraping violin and delicate plucked piano strings gently floating above. The piece has that feel of suspended time that I so love in Feldmans work. A nice variety of sounds, great pacing and overall completely fascinating recording. I’m definitely excited to hear more from these two.
Dave Barnes/Graham Stephenson – s/t (no label)
I spend a lot of time on various music related blogs, BBS’s and chat rooms and there are plenty of music makers amongst the audients. In fact in the world of experimental music I’d say that it is more common that the listeners are involved in some way in the music whether it be as producer, label runner, writer or music maker. While many make music few actually manage to create something that rises above the nearly endless amount of music out there. But the young listener /creators Dave Barnes and Graham Stephenson managed to do just that. In a year in which a lot of electronics and wind duos came this is one of only a few that I think was actually interesting. Youthful vigor perhaps or, this being their debut, there was something to prove but even more so I think a lack of the routine, the familiarity even ennui that seasoned musicians can so easily succumb to. The sounds here are interesting, but not unfamiliarity but the alacrity with which they are applied and the skirting with control add a vigor and freshness to this that was not found amongst the establishment.
Taku Unami – Malignitat (skiti)
The fact that Unami uses samples of helicopters and other recorded events as the building blocks of this music isn’t really what is interesting in this release, it is what that signifies. Like the compositions of Radu Malfatti, which Unami has long been involved with, this works with sounds separated in space. As a composition one could see this being just like a Malfatti time bracket piece: play a sound at this time for this long. What Unami does is demonstrate the complete arbitrariness of what the sound is. This could be seen as a simple extension of Cages principle that all sounds are music applied to Cage’s own late time bracket system. Also it could be seen as a critique of the theoretical justifications that Malfatti and his circle has constructed; that they question issues surrounding memory, time and structure. As always these explanations are left up to the reader as Unami maintains his stone faced approach of putting this stuff out there and letting the listener try to cobble together what they mean. It is this I think why Unami remains interesting year after year, why so many others doing similar things do not.