Archive for the ‘Impromental’ Category

All Protection Is In Sound

March 1, 2014

This is nothing less than an enchantment of Irishness. Jennifer Walshe‘s Dordán made me feel my nationality in a rare way – not that I’ve anything against Ireland, just the useful/bothersome fiction of nationality.

The piece – the video here is of the Quiet Music Ensemble‘s 2013 Huddersfield Festival performance – takes an Adam Curtisian mode of collaged, text-led filmic narrative about two men, Pádraig and Caoimhín, each with their own experience of enchantment and of going beyond, and invests it with the mysteries of Mircea Eliade‘s arguments about magico-religious folk cultures and their ‘visionary trancing environments’. Dordán uses Walshe’s characteristically deconstructed toy theatre and strangely lyrical musics to place that kind of trancing in front of audiences, both as idea, in the text of the elliptical film, and as theatre, in the performance.

This is cultural archaeology (though all archaeology is cultural, so I don’t know what I mean by that) and enchantment on a grand scale, a mishmash synthesis where Irish dancing, trad performance and the landscape become magical sites, not the stodgy shibboleths of my youth, the latter through Caoimhín’s tellurian tapes, and the former through Pádraig’s droning pipes. It recovers and creates previously unknown histories, much like the ‘dissonant assembly’ of Elizabeth Price’s similarly archaeological The Woolworths Choir Of 1979, making connections across time to show us the importance of the visionary dimension – Eliade’s hierophanies – of experience.

If Price can win the Turner for Woolworths, surely Walshe deserves some kind of Irish equivalent for this?

Exaudi and Discrepant

January 7, 2014

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Couple of recent reviews…

Exaudi and Apartment House in Tempo (fancy new Tempo! – though still behind Cambridge UP paywall),

and Papillon (Discrepant) in the Quietus.

Jennifer Walshe and Roger Doyle

July 5, 2012

Here‘s an interview I did recently with the great composer Jennifer Walshe.

And a review of Roger Doyle’s Chalant – Memento Mori

Composing improvisation

February 27, 2012

Here‘s my interview with composer/improviser Dylan Rynhart.

Minton, Butcher, Weston, Turner and James Joyce

February 11, 2012

Phil Minton is a formidable, and feral, improvising vocalist.

The range of projects in which he engages reflects the emotional and technical range of the voice; from composed pieces (Minton’s performances of Hannes Loeschel’s music come particularly recommended) to sound poetry to fully improvised performance to experiments with choric collaboration for the inspiring Feral Choir project, Minton admits of few limits as a vocalist.

For his latest project Minton joins again with his eponymous quartet, consisting of John Butcher on saxophones, Veryan Weston on piano, and Roger Turner on drums. The second half of their King’s Place concert was given over to a typically probing thirty or so minutes of improvisation, but for the first half Minton and co resurrected their exuberant 1996 album, mouthfull of ecstasy, which is a quasi-composed suite of music with an improvised feel based, or perhaps inspired is a better term, on Joyce’s mongrel novel-poem-litany Finnegan’s Wake.

Deciphering the line between improvisation, narrative, composition, literacy and musicality is very difficult as regards mouthfull of ecstasy. Without a programme note I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as if the quartet stuck roughly to the sequence of the album; though of course even if that was the case this performance had a vivacity and a contour all of its own, it being to a significant degree improvised.

In any case, what we heard and witnessed were large and small scraps of Joyce’s text, sometimes intoned by the whole ensemble, sometimes sung in a gruff, urban patois or garbled like emetic sonic slurry, by Minton, on one occasion sung rather sweetly by Butcher, and more often than not chewed up by the clattering skronk of the ensemble. The musicians were clearly playing from scores of some order or another, where broad emotional/sonic-lexical grids seemed to be the directions on their mysterious notational antigrams, and as such the performance felt dynamically purposeful.

Of particular note throughout were Weston’s rich, oaky, genteel readings; Butcher’s undimmed facility for slotting sympathetically into the pocket of fellow musicians’ sounds; and, best of all, the glorious four-part speech collage ‘My Diaper has More of Ecstacy’.

I did however sometimes long for more clarity in the narrative. That is probably a strange and possibly incongruous thing to say in this late-Joycean context, but it seems to me that much of the fire and charge of Joyce’s text comes from its playing off of meaning and its elusion, comes from its driving up of polysyllables and polysemy hard against catachreses, metalepses, and other literary tropes. The point is, Finnegan’s Wake is hypertrophic, but it still seems to be signifying something beyond almost complete semantic jumble.

Of course, it is Minton and the group’s prerogative to stage the text, or elements of the text, in this way; perhaps they see the project as exploring more specifically the musicality of Joyce’s text. However, the musicality of text, its so-called ‘second syntax’, is inextricable from what that ‘music’ is signifying. The two seem separate, but in practice the separation between sound and signified is rarely clean. Within the concert those few moments of exposed text seemed to me the most charged; after all, the text is already immensely semantically wobbly, so aggravating that wobbliness perhaps becomes superfluous. There is something to be said conceptually for matching the hypertrophy of the text with musical exaggeration working under the same principles – here the group would be reproducing Butcher’s distinctive simpatico strategy as an improvisor on a larger scale – but in practice I felt the concept to be a little lacking. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the performance a great deal nonetheless.

I enjoyed the improvisation in the second half too. Though the group reverted to type on more than one occasion, there was enough genuine vim and surprise to preserve interest; Turner contained his sometimes excessive gesturing of the first half to achieve a real sympathy with the other three, whilst Butcher and Minton’s close curlicues were a joy. The group found themselves in a bird colony at one point – all of them whistling and chirping in unanticipated imitation of the beautifully balanced order/individual freedom spectrum of actual birdsong – before a grand guignol, low-voiced comedy finale call and response between Weston and Minton.

The latter, throughout, was as invigorating, inviting, inspiring as ever, whether he was sputtering on fast forward like a scared Scatman, lowing like a folk agitator, or wailing with his chest out and head drawn back as if he was the only person in a terrifying world.

Jazz Fest

November 24, 2011

My reactions to two contrasting but enjoyable evenings at the bustling London Jazz Festival…

Rian and the spirit of gravity

October 27, 2011

It’s no accident that dance was at the centre of Nietzsche’s metaphysics, nor that it holds such importance for other philosophers and thinkers, from Badiou to Valéry. It is one of those rare forms of expression, of living, where evenness of emotion is hard to maintain in its company. One can’t help but be changed through its practice.

Nietzsche used dance as a metaphor for thought, opposing it to what he described as the ‘spirit of gravity’, a deleterious force for Nietzsche. Badiou suggests that dance is, first and foremost, ‘the image of a thought subtracted from every form of heaviness’. He also suggests that it does not present the body liberated, but instead the body in disobedience as regards its impulses. Dance thus understood is a marking out of the struggle with gravity and form imposed on us moment-to-moment in our lives.

These may seem somewhat grand and perhaps over-general notions of the dance, but they get at something vivid at its heart, a vibrant conception of space, movement and feeling which the dance also shares with musical performance, particularly broadly spontaneous, participatory musical performance.

This vibrancy, no less than this crossover of the dance and of music, is also at the heart of Fabulous Beast and Liam Ó Maonlaí’s stunning Rian. Fresh from a rapturous reception at the Dublin Theatre Festival, Rian just completed two night’s at Sadler’s Wells, the second of which I attended. These two nights, by the by, are surely a test run for a much longer stint, at least if the jubilant reaction of the crowd on the night I attended is anything to go by.

Rian takes its name and perhaps its cultural starting point from Liam Ó Maonlaí’s 2005 eponymous album of traditional and original Irish songs, written partly in tribute to Seán Ó Riada, Irish composer and the leading figure of the Irish traditional music revival. Ó Maonlaí, the lead singer of Irish rock band the Hothouse Flowers and also a respected traditional musician in his own right, has collaborated closely with the director of Fabulous Beast, Michael Keegan-Dolan, to put together the show, although the process was very much a group collaboration. The eight dancers involved, for example, came up with a repertoire of 108 named ‘natural movements’ in response to the music of the five musicians, which came to form the basis of the dance elements of Rian.

The music, meanwhile, is largely the responsibility of Ó Maonlaí, with original compositions, arrangements of traditional music, and some pieces from Rian mainly comprising the score.

Similarly, Ó Maonlaí takes the lead on stage, moving seamlessly between piano, bodhrán, harp, guitar, and tin whistle, most of the while singing meditatively to his own accompaniments. And yet even if Ó Maonlaí can be said to be musically key, the contributions of his four band mates are indispensable. They each achieve at moments a beauty that is easily comparable to anything realised by Ó Maonlaí. Special mention must go in this regard to the sweetly chaste but expressively rich voice of Eithne Ní Chatháin, who sings ‘Lough Erne’s Shore’ so romantically, and the colourful and exciting pipering of Maitiú Ó Casaide, whose own arrangement and solo performance of three famous traditional tunes, to the accompaniment of writhing-in-mid-air (on chairs) dancers and musicians (whose shadows created wonderful effects on the back wall), proved a highlight of this highlight-heavy show.

Both music and dance move deftly in and out of each other, and across their own internal movements, in Rian. The show does not concern itself with a narrative as such, apart from a well-managed emotional and dynamic rise and fall, but prefers to gain its coherence through the rhyming of its two core elements.

But what does it mean to say that, in this production, dance and music fuse and emerge out of each other? At the heart of the group performance of Irish traditional music, as with so many folk traditions from around the world, is a direct simplicity of material and gesture, and a cyclical and building sense of form. A dance melody is heard for eight bars, and then a second, again for eight bars. These melodies then simply repeat, with musicians joining and varying the melodies slightly as things go on. If the musicians are performing a set, then the original dance will shift after a short time to another, with the same formal principle holding for the new melodies.

This simple but exciting process of repetition and variation is the exact form the Keegan-Dolan gives to the dance in Rian. Just as the musicians play games with each other, joining in a duet or teasing in separation, or coming together as a total ensemble, the dancers likewise make each short section (which run for as long as the musical piece runs) a game of teasing interaction and joyous coming together.

Another simple touch that works to elide the music and dance in Rian is that, throughout the show, the musicians find themselves dancing, naturally, and why shouldn’t they? Likewise, the dancers often sing out a harmony or a holler, or bang a drum along enthusiastically with the music. Like a great opera, Rian is internally cohesive and totally integrated (!)

And, just as the material of the music is quotidian, simple, but capable of great expression, the rhythms and shapes of Rian‘s dancers evoke normal everyday attitudes, shaken up and exalted by illumination. A routine will often start, for instance, with each dancer entering by mimicking the entrance of their partners, where in one memorable instance this entrance comprised the dancer shaking themselves into movement as if trying to warm up. The effect of the imitation is to draw the audience into a sense of something being gradually worked out, a collective coming together articulated through both dance and music. Often routines will evoke a gradual falling into place of the whole ensemble, or a full working out of the game-like shapes a dancing couple throw around each other.

The dancing is often less cohesive or mannered as this may make it sound – for example the dancers often simply jump up and down or run out of steam happily and trail away seemingly spontaneously. And though this looseness, as with the seemingly conventional or habitual actual movements of many of the dances, might suggest a bunch of happy amateurs, this company is filled with anything but. The technique and confidence of expression displayed on stage is often breathtaking.

So here’s hoping the show makes a quick return. It’s far from perfect, of course, and there are it has to be said a few moments of lost focus and comparably mundane activity. However, generally speaking the momentum and the achievement is largely sustained for the whole 110 minutes.

This could then be a new Riverdance, a Riverdance with a modern imagination, a Riverdance infused with the spirit of the fragment, the beauty of the accident, and the astounding absence of cynicism you so rarely find in great art.

Fennesz and Emeralds at Union Chapel

September 27, 2011

Emeralds and Fennesz’s joint-concert last night in the rather dramatic Union Chapel highlighted the coffee-table potentiality of the type of gently pulsing, pink noise ambient drone music these artists are wont to make.

The rapt crowd of hipsters and middle aged beardy gentleman at this Barbican-affiliated concert in fact felt little out of place in what was ostensibly – considering the artists on the bill, notwithstanding their prominence – an underground gig.

Whilst underground music has its roots in experiment and sonic abrasion or chaos, its wide compass can certainly be seen to extend to the kind of music that strikes a quiet note of gentle futurity comparable to the tenor of much modern art and arthouse film. This music has the potential to become accessorised to a certain kind of mainstream life; a 2010s version of trip-hop, if you will.

The musical basis of this judgement holds more in the case of Emeralds than it does Fennesz, although both sets last night displayed abundant sonic warmth and palatability.

Fennesz played first, giving us a slightly meandering 45 minute set of laptop drones and loudly-flanged and distorted guitar, which never quite took off, although it featured some particularly nice moments. Such moments occurred as when for example the music’s hazy textures were alternately allowed to build into indeterminate, unruly, and voluminous pitch clouds, or to ease back into chiming three chord guitar figures, which themselves soon became reflexive interference patterns indiscernible qua guitar figures.

Notwithstanding his own pre-eminence in this area, Fennesz lacks the musical sophistication of someone like Oren Ambarchi, who operates in a broadly similar area with much more subtlety of colour and compulsion of pacing. That being said, it’s still the case that Fennesz’s set on this occasion was vivid enough in its own way, without ever quite broaching the emotional starkness of for example his 2008 album Black Sea.

Emeralds’ set was hampered somewhat by sound problems. The trio’s effervescent synth player John Elliot seemed to be particularly ticked off by the low volumes at which Emeralds’ looping jams were being conveyed. He needn’t have worried too much; although not especially original in itself, Emeralds tuneful drone/post-rock ambience was given with a particular sense of sonic finesse in this early part of the set. Mark McGuire’s duets and trios with himself on zephyr-quiet guitar worked in those sections to enhance the burrowing synth loops and swooping divebombs of his two partners very well.

As an Unkle-like drum loop cranked up mid-set, the musicians began really to cut loose, building up an exciting head of steam that reached its apogee in the wall noise encore finale, where Elliot’s thrilling headbanging seemed finally to find a correlate in the richness of the musical gesticulations of his band’s sound, which charged forward amidst the noise until a final caesura on the 3+3+2 loop which had buttressed the wall all along signalled the end.

This concert presented a vivid reminder that what awaits almost all experimental movements or individuals (from Mahler to Maderna) is an absorption of one sort of another, is a recuperation under newer forms of understanding built in part on the new pathways fostered by that music in the first place.

Fennesz and Emeralds do not in this respect represent some sort of degradation of the aims of underground music. Instead they can be seen to represent a condensation of some of its most common musical tendencies, such as improvisation, droning and looping, and the cultivation of noise, which are put into play here alongside others derived from left-of-centre mainstream acts such as Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, or Steve Reich. Hence, it is not that with these artists underground music can be said to have reached a state of canonicity; rather, their music and its reception make clear that implicit all along in the underground has been and will continue to be a certain palatability, which is ripe for mainstream canonisation.

Sinister Resonance

June 24, 2011

My review of David Toop’s Sinister Resonance for the Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland has now been published. It’s a frustrating but ultimately very rewarding book, full of great moments and curious insights about the nature of sound and listening.

Culture and Composition in 2011

June 17, 2011

In my review of Ed Bennett’s Dzama Stories I noted of Bennett that he ‘powerfully evokes cruel worlds and uncanny valleys’. Bennett’s new NMC portrait disc confirms Bennett as composer laureate of the surreal and the embellished, featuring as it does a range of solo and chamber works of striking novelty and not a little emotion.

As is the case with many composers of his generation – that is, born in the 1970s or thereabouts – the division in Bennett’s life between different forms of music, indeed, between different artistic media and disciplines, is much less robust than it would have been even a generation before.

Whereas composers such as Reich, Adams, and even Adès profess to engage with popular and contemporary cultures, theirs is a deeply conservative, extramural, even instrumental engagement. It is qualitatively little separable from Beethoven or Haydn’s use of folksong. The objectives of high art constitute the formal law of this engagement.

The situation is more complex in the younger generation. Composers such as Bennett, Edwards, and Clancy are to an extent embedded in popular/contemporary culture. At least, they participate in the jumbled, non-unitary musical discourse of today in such a way as to reconstitute the framework of allegiances expected of composers. It is not that they do not bring the values of the academy to their work, but rather that these values can be seen to be in a process of flux, of permeation, in their music. They are being worked out anew for a world with very different expectations and requirements of and from its artists. This does not necessarily lend these younger individuals a moral superiority over their older counterparts: it is simply a reflection of the processes of cultural discourse settling themselves into reality.

Which brings me to the music. How can we understand the engagement of which I have just spoken to function in Bennett’s music? I would suggest that it is present in these fundamental guiding principles: internally-determined syntaxes; contact with the world outside of music which is full of friction; a certain enigma and obsession with the spectrality of childhood, and of life. These principles are in a state of mutual entanglement, in varying densities, in Bennett’s music.

The first of these principles means that the music is little concerned with musical conventions, especially in terms of form, cadence, and climax. Thus in Slow Down, written for and performed by an on-form Fidelio Trio sounding here like sonic archaeologists, the flow is determined by a sensual, turned inside-out approach to frequency and timbre. Yes we come to a climax of sorts following a long process of hushed but unyielding frequencial and dynamic intensification, but this process is so oleaginous that it feels almost unlike a climax (though not anti-climactic). The piece echoes Newland, Coates, and of course Feldman, but it is so muted and undemonstrative – and yet purposeful in its quick little gestural animations of that muting – that I would wager for its originality.

for JF, meanwhile, is the dynamic, if not thematic, inversion of Slow Down. The aggressive Ligeti-via-Malipiero-via-Scelsi opening minutes’ obsession with C#, shards into a mussed-up Stravinsky march that keeps struggling to the fore, before the music graduates into a registrally splayed scratchiness, with moments of respite. This terminates, finally, much as an angry machine would if it were both combusting and running out of batteries at the same time. Performed here by Contempo Quartet with the requisite hostility and excitement, for JF is akin to James Clarke in its syntactical freedom, but much more gesturally and narratively direct than that comparison would suggest.

The second principle has to do with the mutual process of estrangement that happens when Bennett uses non-musically derived titles (and, thus, programmes) such as Stop-Motion Music and Cartoon Music. Bob Gilmore’s great sleeve notes speak of the influence of Svankmajer on the first of these pieces. For me its swelling, slowed-down grotesques (the pairing of electric guitar and trombone, and then strings, in the opening is particularly pungent) actually seem to repurpose the atmosphere of Svankmajer’s films in unexpected, uncanny ways that have as much to do with music as they do the visual imaginary. Echoes of Donnacha Dennehy abound here too, particularly of his For Herbert Brün in the opening, and his Junk Box Fraud in the sparky, Andriessen-derived rhythmic and gestural polyvalence of the central sections. The outlandish culmination is Bennett at his frenzied best, and his ensemble, Decibel, deserve much praise for the level of dynamic response and technical dexterity they bring to this music.

Written for alto sax, piano, percussion, and performed by members of Decibel, Cartoon Music fools you into thinking it has the bearing of John Cage’s Sonata No. 1 for prepared piano, before shifting into much more unpredictable, harried territory. The piece scores a phantasmagorical cartoon, replete with ethereal interludes, that leaves you questioning the true hierarchy of the visual and the aural under normal conditions of cartoon service.

The third principle relates to the second, but concerns more explicitly the hauntings, the ghosts, that define the contemporary notion of temporality and historical progress (i.e. the failure of historical time in postmodern culture that leaves us incapable of setting the proper distance between our childhoods and now); My Broken Machines and Ghosts seem apt to this principle. The first stages a grand, emotion-rich invention where the listener is privy to a very private process of decay and residue: the broken machines of the title refer to the arcades of Barry’s Amusements, now standing derelict, which through Decibel’s performance of this piece get to shriek, fart, and clang once more. My Broken Machines is pregnant with an unexpected atmosphere of poignant hauntology.

Ghosts and Monster are the only solo works in this release. Each in its way confirms the thematic obsessions of Bennett, whilst bringing them to new places. Monster is performed by bass clarinettist Paul Roe. Roe plays flitting motifs against scrappy and bitty arrays of pre-recordings of himself, with some accompanying use of electronic effects and patters, particularly in the hectic middle, and then the later, cadential, section. Fragments of German speech drop in and out, too. This music is humorous, evocative, cinematic, and fun, if of less impact than the other pieces, which feel a little more complete. However, the Hammer Horror pantomime is appreciated nonetheless. Monster seems also to be the only piece on this release in which the soloist is allowed some significant degree of freedom, a trait that so wildly in attendance on Bennett’s previous work with Paul Dunmall.

Ghosts, which closes the disc, seems, like My Broken Machines, to begin with the premise that sound itself is a haunting (cf. David Toop), that it constitutes the chief medium of night terrors and uncanny experiences of place or atmosphere. Ghosts was inspired by late nights working in the spooky environs of the Irish Cultural Institute, and its sonic and occasional vocal meanderings on this theme do magnificent work here on the theme of the ambiguities of audition and phenomenology. Performed by the brilliant Garth Knox on amplified viola d’amore, the piece feels like a séance split between Victorian notions of revenant sensibility and twenty-first century technological ghost-lingerings. The closing minutes are a stunning and quieting achievement: poltergeist-hums, tonal fixity on a shimmering note-grid, and the inventive amplification and plucking of the viola d’amore’s sympathetic strings combine as phantoms in these minutes to leave the listener unsettled and pleasingly anxious.

Now to conclude. I’ve strayed somewhat into the old languages in parts of the review. Similar things might have been said of the older generation’s music. But this shows us that we’ve stumbled on one of the truths of musical life; invention and experiment must take place in the minds of the audience and critics as much as in the sounds of the music. Music cannot speak its own truths; it is up to us to develop concepts and tools with which to refine what is happening in the sound, to parse it and achieve a conceptual transformation worthy of the composer’s corresponding transformations. The music on this release is powerful enough to provoke such a speculative response. It demands the establishment of conditions adequate to its reception. Needless to say: Highly recommended!


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