Entries tagged with “MusicReviews”.

Max Eastley Installation Recordings (1973-2008)
Max Eastley
Installation Recordings (1973-2008) (Paradigm)

Max Eastley Aeolian Flutes

For those inclined to come to terms with the music of John Cage, it almost always comes in stages. The prepared piano is often the gateway, or perhaps the early percussion work. For some it might be the more wild electronics of the sixties, or perhaps they came to it via dance and Merce Cunningham. As one develops ones appreciation one accepts his various ideas: rhythmic structure, silence, the validity of all sounds and finally chance and the reduction of the will of the composer. The notions of chance composition, indeterminacy and attempting to remove from music the composer or performers taste’s and predilections are the most difficult hurdle for most to get past and many people, even those highly interested in contemporary composition, experimental music and the like never do.  It is not at all uncommon to meet those who only really enjoy Cage’s early music, losing the thread when chance operations became his primary working method (also you meet those who only appreciate the number pieces, which while chance composed utilize a very carefully chosen set of constraints that reduce certain features that turn many people off of chance composed music. But that is another topic). But chance is the key to Cage’s work, one must accept it, get past that to really appreciate his music. It often is misunderstood as an expediency of composition (and perhaps it was in the European Avant-Garde’s aleatoric music) but for Cage it was the tool he found to help reduce forcing his personal tastes and predilections upon the music.  Following this idea to at least one sort of endpoint, what could remove the composer more effectively than creating sculptures that generate sound on their own, often in response to natural events?

I lay my harp on the curved table,
Sitting there idly, filled only with emotions.
Why should I trouble to play?
A breeze will come and sweep the strings.
-Attributed to Po Chü-i (772-846)(2)

Max Eastley has been making sound producing sculptures since the early 1970s and this cd documents 36 years of them beginning in the year that I was born. His scupltures often relay on wind (aeolian harps and flutes) or collections of electric and mechanical parts assembled to maximize unpredictability, the use of field recordings and combinations of these with electronics, performers and other instruments. These sculptures naturally exhibit indeterminacy through use of wind or wave action or chaotic electrical parts but furthermore also in their very construction:

I chose not to use any system of tuning: the metals for example were chose visually and I put random pitches of Aeolian Flutes together, but I tuned strings to specific tone rows. (3)

from Clocks Of The Midnight Hour

This two cd set contains short little recordings from these scupltures, as well as performances from some of the more instrument like sculptures. As this set is a document of these installations it doesn’t contain any of the improvised music that Eastley has done with various other musicians. The discs are very well put together, the short excerpts are crafted into extended pieces that all crossfade into each other. The liner notes mark these into sections containing from one to seven tracks and these work quite well as pieces of music. The level of consideration in this assemblage is quite high, sometimes a particular sculpture is returned to several times in one of these “pieces”, which really gives it a flow and makes what could be mere documentation into an captivating piece of music. Of course not everything works, but nothing lasts so long as to dominate, to force the album into one particular shape. It is the sounds of the sculpture that dominate, often metal on metal, odd rotating sounds, clunking wood and the like. It reminds me of the best field recordings in a way, those that aren’t mere documentation but a piece of music. In many ways I think capturing the essence of the natural world, the way that sounds come in and overlap of their own according, those moments of near stasis and the wide range of dynamics, has been a goal of those working with chance based music.

Max Eastley Wind Flutes

While of course it is hard to tell, I’d wager that the least successful tracks here had the most intervention from humans. Whether as scupltures being played, or by transformation from electronics, there are several tracks that are smoothed out into rather new age soundscapes that are tolerable simply due to their brevity and transformation into another piece. The best pieces are all a-flutter with with the breeze, starting and stopping unpredictably, with big crashes sometimes, or a softly guttering unpitched tone. Rhythms driven by natural processes that fail capture by our senses but fully capture our imagination. There are sounds, rhythms, harmonies on this set that have captivated me more then anything else this year and even the bits that aren’t as interesting to me work in the flow of the album. The carefully constructed structure keeps it from feeling like a catalog of work; there are musical pieces here. I’ve never had a chance to experience one of Eastley’s sculptures in person but I dearly hope to get the chance. Seattle’s outdoor  Olympic Sculpture Park would greatly benefit from one of these in my opinion.

1) Installation Recordings (1973-2008) page at Paradigm
2) A Treasury of Asian Literature, ed. by John D. Yohannan (Meridan, Penguin Books, 1994)
3) Max Eastley from the  Installation Recordings (1973-2008) liner notes
4) Gallery of Images from The Wire May 2008

Polestar Music Galleries 2nd Anniversary Shows

I managed to catch a couple of shows from our local out music venue’s 2nd anniversary series. The two I saw were Kaffe Matthews solo on May 14th and Anne LeBaron, Wolfgang Fuchs and Torsten Muller & Ronit Kirchman the following night. I then went on vacation thus the delay in this posting.

Polestar is a tiny shotgun style store front space. They are able to get two columns of 3 chairs with a aisle in the middle. Maybe 10-15 rows of these. Up front is generally a small stage and a small PA. It is the best place to see music in Seattle though– no smoking, no talking, no bar and decent acoustics. People go there to see shows and attention to the music. The fine folkswho run the venue are in touch with several different creative music scenes and the bookings are quite diverse. Otomo Yoshihide, Eddie Prévost, Wayne Horvitz, Briggan Kraus, Carla Kihlstedt , John Butcher, Jessica Lurie, Wally Shoup, Fred Frith and many, many others have played here. Check out the list of past performances. Anyway just a bit about the venue to set the scene.

Kaffe Matthews was set up in the round with her quadraphonic sound system. She had a Powerbook, mixer, theremin and a midi controller. She began with a single pure tone, generated by the theremin I believe. She then proceeded to manipulate the very response of the room, layering samples of this tone in conjunction with new tones. At one point she raises a level on her mixing board and radio emanates. Clearly taken aback, a smile breaks out on her face and she goes with it. About 5
from the venue are 3 radio masts and clearly they were infiltrating her electronics. She proceeded to work this radio (which was primarily jazz singing) into the piece often to great effect. Over the course of an hour-fifteen or so Kaffe worked these materials into dense washes of feedback or spare hisses occasionally letting everything stop to simple amplifier hum. Really engaging, I truly wish we could have moved about the room, as the sound would change just by moving your head. She describes this performance as live room sculpting and I think that is an accurate description.

After the performance there was a little reception. Kaffe kindly explained her gear, software and process to those who asked. This was the case in both nights I went and was a welcome addition to nights of good music.

Tuder and Mumma cover David Tudor & Gordon Mumma
(New World Records)

David Tudor was the mid twentieth century avant garde’s favorite pianist, often called upon by such greats as Stockhausen, Boulez and Cage to perform works that demanded incredible skill. In his work with Cage, he was increasingly called upon to use the electronics of the day and he became a maestro at coaxing the most from these primitive circuits. Cartridges, amplifiers, contact microphones, simple oscillators and filters were the materials they had to work with and Tudor was a master at pushing these just to the point before they would harshly feedback, distort or otherwise produce sounds out of the range called for. Eventually he began to assemble his own circuits, combing the simple elements they had into novel and unique devices that he would often house in soap holders. As he became more of a collaborator then an interpreter he was asked to compose works for various people and in 1968 Merce Cunningham commissioned music for a dance based on Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People called Rainforest.


Circuit Diagram from Rainforest

On hearing the proposed title for this Cunningham dance, Tudor remarked, “Well I’ll be sure to use lots of raindrops”. Instead of any sort of practical technique or taped based method, he chose to use pure electronics for his recreation of the sounds of the rainforest. For the initial version of this piece (which Tudor would perform and expand throughout his career), his interest was in the sounds of amplifiers in and of themselves. “The basic notion, which is a technical one, was the idea that the loudspeaker should have a voice which was unique and not just an instrument of reproduction, but an instrument unto itself.” (1) He utilized small sounds amplified via phonograph cartridges (a technique that he had used on Cages Cartridge Music) then fed into a multi channel speaker array. These sounds were designed to emulate the sound of rain, of wind in the trees, the repetitive calls of birds and the screeches of unseen animals. “In the first version, I made objects which I could travel with. The objects were so small, however, that they didn’t have any sounding presence in the space, so I then amplified the outputs with the use of contact microphones. Then for the second version, I wanted to have a different kind of input”¦ because for the first I had used oscillators that made animal and bird-like sounds. “ (2) The first version of Rainforest was performed in South America during the 1968 Merce Cunningham dance company’s world tour. This new release from New World Records documents Rainforest from this first tour as well as a much longer version from concert in Ithaca New York. Nicely breaking up the two performances are several short piano works by Gordon Mumma also from around this same period.

The first track on the disc is a twenty-minute version of Rainforest from July 30th, 1968, performed in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. A low thrumming sound opens the piece with some audience noise audible in the background. Things then really take off with a distant rattle followed by a persistent clicking sound as of a disturbingly large insect somewhere deep in the forest. This is followed by an oscillating whine as that initial thrum fades away only to be replaced by a rather electrical sounding buzz. Tocks, irregularly repeated, a scratchy moan and feedback with oscillators creating these birdlike calls. Toward the conclusion, there is a persistent bit of feedback and then things wrap up with this cranking sound and then applause and shouts from the audience.

From this very first take on the piece, you can hear that Tudor’s intent was genuinely realized. It truly does capture the sounds of a rainforest as anyone who has heard field recordings from the Amazon or a seen a nature show that allows for some unmediated sound (or I’d image actually being in the Amazonian rainforest). The sounds don’t quite seem natural, their electronic nature obvious and yet played at a low volume or in another room you would swear that someone was playing “sounds of the rainforest”.


David Tudor and Gordon Mumma

This earliest version of Rainforest is followed by six pieces by Gordon Mumma for two pianos that range from fifteen seconds to six minutes in length. Mographs and Gestures are the pieces in question and there are four of the former and two of the later. Both of these works are for two pianists who, as with the rest of the music on this album, are Tudor and Mumma. The Mographs were “derived from seismographic recorded P-waves and S-waves of earthquakes and underground nuclear explosions”(3) and for the most part are quick little bursts at the piano. The sounds are of fragmented arpeggiations, quick chords, spaces and the occasional single note. Often small sections will be repeated the same or with minor variations which as anyone who has seen a seismograph recording can see how that would have developed. The Gestures were a more structurally complicated composition that used different techniques in each of the different numbered section. Section X was a game piece with a very limited range and Section 7 was through composed piece that spanned the range of both pianos. These short little pieces may seem at first listen to be slight little extravagances, but I found them to be a nice interlude between the two versions of Rainforest that additionally I found would hold my attention each time. Simple sounding but with interesting structures and an almost fractal nature in that they seem to be so self similar but are continuously varying.


Circuit Diagram from Rainforest 1968

Following the piano excursions is the second and much longer version of Rainforest. Definitely the centerpiece of the disc, this version takes the concepts and systems of the earlier performance to the limit. It begins with a skittering oscillation and an almost liquid rubbing sound that is shortly followed by a repeated chittering and a gentle wash of static. Out of this arises some bird like chirpings with an electronic edge and a low textural roaring sound that comes in and out, in and out but soon replaced by a low oscillation. A chirping begins, following a rising pattern, which repeats a number of times until transforming into a solid line. Added to this are an oscillating low tone and a very gentle quiet tweeting, soon disrupted by some relatively loud grating feedback. Nothing in the piece, as in the forest last long and this quickly fades out and we return to a more static sound field. Eventually a much louder grinding, stuttering sound comes in, as of a much larger bird closer by. And things continue in this way as this piece captures the effect of spending forty minutes in the rainforest with the variety of sounds that you would expect. Much more varied then the first version this one adds those pulsing, ticking and pounding sounds that one so often hears in rainforest recordings as well as more ambient sounds made up of the low rumble of feedback, warbly hums and bursts of static. Sounds that could have come from a woodpecker, the scream of a large cat, cicada like insect noises and those unidentifiable tocks, screeches and projector like sounds are all found here. It is a rich world of sound and nothing less then what one would expect from such an environment. That it was created with such simple elements ably demonstrates David Tudor’s creativity and how closely he must have listened to the sounds around him. For out of merely amplifying normal sounds and some simple electronics he has created a complete sound world.

The album concludes with a very short solo piano piece that Gordon Mumma created on hearing of the death of David Tudor. Song without Words is a melancholy, almost romantic meander across the keyboard made up of little spaces, single notes and simple chording. You can feel the emotion that just poured out of Mumma and onto the keys, formless as ones thoughts can be at these times and as he titled the piece, wordless.

Rainforest holds up well and can be performed as it always has been with or without the use of new technologies. This autumn I witnessed Gordon Mumma and Matt Rogalsky perform this piece at the Vancouver New Music Silence: John Cage festival (my review here). The performance was stunning and was what drove me to investigate this album. I cannot express how happy I am that I did, as this is one of those rare albums that hold both historical significance and fantastic music. So much of the early electronic music was merely evolutionary, composers playing with new toys and developing new techniques at the cost of the music. Tudor seemed far more interested in using the tools at hand to create the sounds in his head and in this case with complete success. This compact disc exists beyond the mere documentation of an important development in electronic music it is a musical sound world and one of the best listens I’ve had this year.

(1) from an interview by Teddy Hultberg in Dusseldorf May 17th and 18th 1988.
(2) from an interview by John Fullemann October 12th 1985.
(3) from the accompanying liner notes by Gordon Mumma, page 18.

Originally published at Bagatellan