Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Keeril Makan

A friend's Facebook status was just set as "________ is anodyne", which I found rather inspiring, for I think that is what we ultimately seek, not some basic-zen/basic-physics equilibrium but anodyne, something soothing to the mind or feelings, and I am finding that in the music of of Keeril Makan. A New Yorker shout-out from Russell Platt brought this young composer's work to my attention, but its the way that Makan seems to pull sound forcibly out of his ensemble is what has kept it all morning. The brilliantly titled string quartet The Noise Between Thoughts on his Tzadik album In Sound is a prime example.

Written as a reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the piece finds a rough and sturdy balm to this cataclysm. It is not placid or escapist in the least; it instead reacts to war and a world going headlong into shit with muscle and care. The Kronos Quartet is about to saw through their instruments as Makan's music saws though the unthinkable. This would likely be a terrifying yet cleansing performance to witness.

On his website, in the list of compositions, many of the pieces include links to play them streaming form the site, and for this alone, Makan is a badass, but his music backs up the claim. The placid economics of Afterglow consists (mostly) of soft piano pulses that defiantly exists in a turbulent world, like flowers poking up through concrete. Husk, a spectral Crumb-ian trio deals in quavering dissonances between flute and oboe against blows and scrapes from a harp. It is similar to the riot that is The Noise Between Thoughts but on a more intimate, internalized scale. In keeping with the name Husk, perhaps these are the unvoiced afterthoughts of the ragged soldiers slicing through Thoughts, weary and used-up from battle.

His Static Rising for percussion and string quartet can be seen as a bridge between the two extremes. The strings are being quietly, almost surreptitiously scraped and coaxed into sound, as if it is was being done on the sly. In his program notes, Makan notes ventures into and out of the nebulous and fertile territory that exists between pitch and noise. The percussion at times is a patter commiserate with the strings, like how rain compliments melancholy, where as in other points the two have a more cartoonish, adversarial relationship, like in some of the small Harry Partch ensemble pieces, or even Tom & Jerry battles. The balance between clatter and quiet made me think of trying to quietly hide in a attic filled with relics, shuffling around and then suddenly knocking something over in the dark, the noise of which setting of a chain reaction crashes in the ensuing but quickly controlled panic.

In that sense to I find anodyne in Makan's music and music like his. Life is not all strife and all placidity, it is not tiptoes through with a dancer's grace. It is clumsily traversed, and we are constantly (or maybe I am) correcting the little messes we make of it, putting it back in order as we make more messes until we find some way to fake a static continuum, a baseline for existence, and that baseline hums like strings in the attic, screeches like bows pulling strings at their tonal limits and occasionally makes a loud surprising thud.

For music less psychically vigorous but no less interesting, check out his Reich-unraveled amplified sextet Bleed Through, and his music utilized in the soundtrack to the short film "What, No Spinach?"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Carlos Giffoni

Noise-as-a-style poses interesting questions more consistently than it does provide viable results for this listener. It leads one to get all John Cage about things, hand on hip pouting "Well, what is music then?" And I am with them, except that while I still like reading John Cage as much as I did back in my heady days of zeal and discovery, I don't really like to listen to it all that much. But I'm still always listening for it.

Carlos Giffoni has popped up on my radar from two different places: the inclusion of his Adult Life on The Wire's list of things so difficult a staffer was forced to remove it from the office CD player, and this nugget in the Village Voice mentioning his No Fun Fest in New York.

His records do noise right. Arrogance is all grinding fuzz, static made from static pushed through innumerable filters and repeaters, ebbing and flowing with the tide. It is the thing one does if one has a lot of effects pedals and the house alone to oneself, except Giffoni does it with finesse. The growls of technology sound like they are moving impossibly slow through the wires and at teh same time, impossibly fast. We, the listener are out of sync with the continuum/pulse of electricity, so Giffoni shapes it, herds it along like a trusty dog until it gets in the corral.

Adult Life is deceptively cleaner in tenor, building tracks out of precise minute repetitions, so flawless you would think they were melodies extracted from quartz rather than people. When events do arise among the current, you are not quite sure if they are the subject of the composition, acoustic counter-phenomena, or perhaps the will superimposing those sounds onto the grid, if only to blanket the maddening spiky terrain with snow just to keep you from going mad.

In both, you can hear at times, deep in the mix, unmistakable traces of human chanting, like lost transmissions of field recordings bouncing off a quasar to be picked up by nothing. I get the feeling of that old Williams Burroughs routine, that voices never leave a room, that they just bounce around in there forever and that if you had recording equipment sensitive enough, you could recreate everything that happened in that room from the data. But again, there may be no actual humanity in these pieces, and that I am trying to find them in there, seeing faces in the cliffside. The seed to this seeking is undeniably in the pieces, though, and that separates Giffoni from the pack of low-science scientists in noise who set up the Bunsen burners just top see what boils. This music groans and shouts and breathes as much as any other. Whether you can sit in the room while it does it is a matter of your own threshold for experiencing those functions in others.

Giffoni's website

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

William Brittelle

William Brittelle, photo by Ryan Jensen

As I suspected, much of the interesting work in new composition is being done in the field of art song, and the Mohair Time Warp album by William Brittelle is a notable addition. Brittelle is not unlike Violette in that he is pulling it all in, but instead of processing the pop through the academic, Brittelle reverses that by creating little genius pop concertos - playing a hand filled with Broadway, 00's everything rock, 90's indie rock, 80's hard rock, 70's light rock, and polite contemporary chamber music crafted largely from piano, subtle electric rhythm guitar, flute and strings. His manic vocal style hugs the melody like a stock car does the inner edge of the track to pick up speed and ramp up the danger. Like much of the art song I'm encountering, Britelle's music is undeniably pretty, but Brittelle ups the ante on sweet Evan Lurie autumnal noodling by making it kinetic and grand, keeping it at the end of its leash. The ecstatic joy in "Hey Panda" cleared up my sinuses. "Hieroglyphics Baby" reveals where the Pavement really leads to should you be in shape for so long a walk. "Cakewalk to the Multiplex" raises the Animal Collective's hushed shout to an alert. Delirious, delicious stuff.

Dig, if you will, "Terror-Dactyl" - It's like Spandau Ballet gone gloriously mad Robert Palmer-style

or the majestic spires of "Acropolis, What Did I Expect?"

If you like Sufjan Stevens but wished his palette was brighter and more extensive, Brittelle might be your guy. It's like XTC in residence at the BAM. A little night music meets Night Ranger in the forgotten dressing room of the university black box theatre of the soul.

William Britelle's site

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Andrew Violette

I'm still undecided whether Violette fits in the elusive badass category - listening to the 22 pieces that comprise his Rave album, his musical acumen is in glorious effect, weaving disparate things together together as effortlessly as Ives or Gershwin, creating a delirious sonic haze - particulalrly in Chaconne, Minimal Aria With Didgeridooo, letting drones and Glass-y arpeggios skitter and slide across each other under the guise of a choir. It's a thrilling 2:46 of music

But I don't know if the whole grabs me. The pieces bleed into each other, with the familiar commingling with near impenetrability like John Zorn does, but without his range or intense dynamics. But maybe that's the point - a rave in the popular sense is an exercise in intensity through continuity, built on a confluence of the energy that is brought to it; the mass rises and falls with the mood of the crowd as manipulated by the DJ, the musical selector, at the center of it. And this album does exactly that. Probably the fact that I am mulling over whether Violette is a badass or not means that he is a True Badass. The more I listen to Rave, the more I want to listen to it again.

He did one thing I wish more musicians would do - he posted his musings on the music with which he lives on his blog, not just the usual technical data that is lost on the unschooled fans like myself, but the impressions and likes and dislikes with refreshing wit and candor.

Am I the only one who thinks Brian Ferneyhough is a bit of a put-on? I mean, have you seen the scores? There’s nothing easier than writing impossible-to-execute notation. I wrote reams of it as a student until I realized that the goal of notation is not to make things more difficult for the performer but to make things as simple as possible.

His blog is throwing out hundreds of pieces and composers that I suddenly need to hear. It's what I think modern composition is missing - it has plenty of practitioners and scholarly analysts, but not enough unabashed fans, people willing to go into the hermetic confines where this magic is conjured and drag it out into the light of day.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The String Quartets of Gloria Coates

As Philip stated in his post about Lucier the other day, part of the liquid mission of this blog is to find the composers who are writing new and engaging orchestral and chamber music, who are expanding on the already rich tapestries of 20th/21st century music.

My biggest itch that needs scratching is one for string quartets - that intimate little combo of two violins, viola and cello seems to be the soil in which much of my favorite music flowers. Thanks to our ever-inquisitive friend Robert Gable at aworks, I have come to witness and quickly love the eight string quartets of Gloria Coates, tenderly captured by the Kreutzer String Quartet.

The sum of the experience of listening to all six in order is that Coates finds the most interesting things hidden in the folds of time and space's fabric, things that on occasion stir her to rapture, allowing her to step into those exalted planes and record and report back the wondrous things she witnessed there.

Here is a quick interpretation of each:

  1. "Protestation Quartet" (1966) - It opens with a low wolf's growl and a quick strike, the way any good protest should. The bulk of its five-and-a half minute run is given over to rumination, sides of one's argument, sometimes harmonious, sometime incongruous, hover in the air, sliding back and over each other like they are on a slippery ground. I can almost picture our wolf looking puzzled at the options that have opened from that first growl. it ends with more quick strikes, more consternation until one final blow sets the wolf on its decided course of action.
  2. The single movement of the 2nd quartet (1972) is subtitled "Grave" and again I get the sense that the thing that is grave is consequences. The mulling here is deeper than in the first, the decisions that come from it braiding out in threads sometimes off into the sky until they disappear. There is a nest of sighs in here, or perhaps protracted hmmmmm's that take away from the dramatic rattling that underpin a lot of the action here. Plucked tiptoes become more trepidatious steps toward the end of this piece that dissolves like a nervous horror movie victim fainting at the final, horrible realization that always awaits.
  3. The 3rd quartet (1975) opens ("Marcato," each note beginning with a new attack of the bow) with a somber fog from the low strings blowing in from the cold morning on the ocean, with what seems like deconstructed folky melodies echoing around that empty dock. A bit of dreamy circus environment can be inferred here, with melodies making soaring loops as if on a trapeze. Fellini could have done wonderful things to this music.

    The second movement ("Mirror Canon") comes in screaming from the distance, like sirens at the horizon with which you become acclimated by the time they arrive. The "Agitato" third section has some of the stretched loop-de-loop from the first, but with the melodies more pronounced. The sweeping strings remind me of the sliding notes that happen a lot in Harry Partch's works - as if the shortest path to get from A to B is long curving slide. At the bottom of that slide, though, is a hive of bees perturbed by your sudden appearance, a situation that a few mechanical motions repeated enough times to sound mechanized quickly remedies.
  4. The "Molto sostenuto espressivo" that opens her 4th quartet (1976-7) captures the dips and flights of the previous items but here the entire quartet is hanging onto the trapeze, inspiring movement with slow slides and adjustments of texture. The circular motions interlocking in this piece made me think of trying to describe a sphere with music.

    The second movement has a more sinister air, as if it is filling the sphere from the first with smoke, the cello offering a church organ groan of remorse to the proceedings. The third movement "Allegretto scherzando" (I wish writing had sexy Italian terms like this) is possessed with a much more palpable menace emerging from the screams, the quickening pace of taps on the instrument bodies, the locomotive chugs punctuates by sharp blows that sound like bones being snapped.

    This section possibly can be read as discovering that wails and whoops of the previous movement were just the zeroing in on the the inner clockwork of this sphere, as if you are having the sudden realization that the sphere is the monad, the fundamental unit and once that enlightenment happens, the music comes to a complete stop.
  5. The 5th quartet (1988) is in three lengthy movements subtitled "Through Time," "Through Space," and "Into the Fifth Dimension." Time here is measured in waves of dissonance against intoning structure, only finding existence in the contrasts, like real time I suppose. Does time exist when nothing happens? Is when the right world there? Should it be where, or maybe even a paradoxical as?

    Space offers a similar terrain as it is traversed, except it seems to take longer. An analogy between the two is thinking for two days about how long it is going to take to drive across Texas vs. spending two days actually driving across Texas.

    I would have to be stoned to explain the fifth dimension to you right now, but one way to look at it as the realm of possibility, the plane on which one can plot all three dimensional things existing at all possible times. It is through this labyrinth that crazy of Nietzsche strolls, knowing that the end of the maze will only lead you to the beginning again. Coates expresses this confluence once again as waves, but instead of the ripples out of dissonance, we lope seasick up and down folds in time/spaces slippery fabric.

    The real meat of this piece is revealed halfway through this movement, in that the sine waves build up to dizzying degrees only to drop us into momentary silence as they build up again. On this second trip, we have our sea legs and can hear the basic tones of the system, we can see the threads in the fabric. Toward the end, the undulations slow down to a drone, perhaps consciousness or a Nirvana state where we are everything, everywhere all the time. And then it stops. Maybe there is actually an additional movement into the sixth dimension, but it is too complex for our three-dimensional brains to hear it.
  6. The 6th quartet (2000) is built of "Still," "Meditation," and "Evanescence" it opens in what I like to call De Chirico stillness, notes occupying the deserted plazas occupying the spaces in the painter's metaphysically charged yet lifeless landscapes. Coates is almost, but not quite playing in the walled garden of drones, letting tones exist like flowering plants long enough to experience their subtle perfume. I say not quite, because there are traces of the melodic still present, keeping these pieces from being the physics lab demonstrations that drone music often becomes.

    I tried to plug my brain into the wikipedia article on evanescent waves but I stopped when the fuses started to smoke in their sockets, leaving me to walk away with evanescent meaning "tends to vanish." The magnificent drones of the previous movements are now collapsed, almost existing as radiation from the previous having been emitted. Tiny events occur in this near silent primordia, little thuds of strings, a faint murmur from below begging you to dig into the hear mist-covered ground. Theses little sprouts are doing the opposite of vanishing, they are instead thriving in having existed, more alive as echoes than as the original shout.
  7. The 7th quartet (2001) is one dramatic movement called "Angels" conjuring spirits out of pulses and shivers. There is some similarity in cinematic effect with Ligeti's more famous works, but "Angels" is more melodically brazen, allowing melodies to twitter out like birds as the sky blazes with bursts of an organ.

    This, by the way, is precisely what I am looking for in contemporary string quartet, and music in general - something that rips at the fabric of the familiar so that I may peek through and glimpse the fantastic.
  8. I am reticent to even try to listen to music after "Angels" but it is a mention of the 8th quartet (2001) that brought me here. This one seems to be an amalgamation of the previous quartets, but I am also open to the idea that I am projecting that notion from having sat through them all. The peaks and valleys here in the first movement "On Wings of Sound" are familiar ones after having experienced similar landscapes in the previous quartets, but the line of the land seems to be folded here, such that the high and low points match up. Perhaps this is the confident products of the pan-dimensional musings of the 5th quartet.

    "In Falling Timbers Buried" we are thrust into a realm of sighs, larger and more laden with exhaustion than those in the 2nd quartet. The organ of "Angels" is invoked in dissonant clusters out of which searing high tones ceaselessly rise, bringing out the most unexpected thing, a simple, orchestral semi-Romantic big finish. "Prayer" continues this unabashedly melodic trek, the whole quartet working as one through a simple, nay hummable melody. Compared to the rest of the works here, "Prayer" is the most accessible piece of music, but also the most elegant, as if it is a culmination of the previous meditations and soul-scrapings that went on in the previous pieces, which is, I suppose, the form a proper prayer should take.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Alvin Lucier


The purpose of this blog is for Alex and I, two interested more-or-less outsiders, to try to figure out what is going on in contemporary music composition. Cage, Feldman and Stockhausen are dead. LaMonte Young, Elliot Carter, Steve Reich & Philip Glass have been around forever. Who are the people writing the new music, now? And what is new concert music now? Who will be the next Nono, Partch or Cowell? Its a conversation between friend, one I am delighted to have because much of my interest in this music comes from Alex’s having turned me onto it years ago. But for me- perhaps because I am now much better versed in electro-acoustic and computer music, especially of a non-academic variety, I would like to center around conventional notation and instrumentation, allowing ofcourse for augmentation.

That all said I’m going to write first about, not a youngster, but a true bad ass, the person I’ve thought of as the greatest living American composer for some time and if you’ve made it here- someone I assume you know about: Alvin Lucier. In the future hopefully we’ll delve into younger folks and newer works.

If, like me, you cut your teeth on conceptual and process art, or really anything other than music theory- if an explanation of how something is made helps you enter into contemporary art(s) like it does so many others, then Lucier is a godsend. The work involves process, which becomes a way of understanding, of contextualizing the intriguing sounds generated. His now ubiquitous “I am sitting in a room” is a super obvious example, it is a piece so process driven and so conceptually hermetic that it becomes almost impossible to not get. By contrast Milton Babbitt’s works only makes sense if you understand the history and ideas of serialism and that is something which leaves a lot of people on the outside not able to enter it. The language used to explain a Lucier is not music language, but quotidian language. “I am sitting in a room” literally explains itself to you.

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

There are problems with “I am sitting in a room.” Or I think there are problems as it exists in its recorded form (at least the CD reissue of the 1970 recording). It is in mono which is distressing for a piece so much about how space affects sound; and is all one track- which makes one have to listen to it straight through but also makes it impossible to tell how many permutations have happened- although this has really only been an issue when using it in an educational context. The live version he performed in Chicago a few years ago [full disclosure, I worked on organizing that concert] was in stereo and in the course of a performance one can’t really be bothered to try to follow the number of cycles. There are simply more important, less academic, things to be concerned with- like basking in its reverby glory.

The above is all a digression; I don’t really want to talk about “I am sitting in a room”. The bad ass piece I want to write about is the unfortunately titled “Wind Shadows” (1994) which I know from his CD Panorama (Lovely Music LTD, 1997) but still takes advantage of the physical properties of sound propagation. The composition utilizes two electronic oscillators and trombone. With the oscillators set to almost the same frequency (five hertz apart) the sound is nearly unchanging with a slow beating coming in briefly every few seconds and a trombonist who, as I understand it, plays notes between the oscillator frequencies while they are beating. The sounds come together surprising well. The trombone reminding me somewhat of a foghorn, the whole piece has the feeling of watching a lighthouse at night- waiting for the beam to slowly make its revolution and once again illuminate the thick air.

The thing about Lucier’s work for me is that even though it is process driven, it is still a compelling listen. Somehow within his process he manages to include tension and release, the fundamental building blocks of holding human interest. There is a structure comprehendible beyond academic circles but at the same time, especially on works after “I am sitting in a room” understanding it becomes supplemental to enjoyment of it, unnecessarily to its appreciation, pure lagniappe.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Jacob Kirkegaard

Linked up from the ever helpful aworks, available on lala - "Labyrinths" by Jacob Kirkegaard is 37 minutes of closely-pitched hums, tiny waves going in and out of phase making little ripples in the air as it plays. I love this stuff, I think it's like listening to the tumblers as you crack the safe containing the Universe's secrets, but I can fully understand how someone would hate it. To me, this is perfect car trip music - bliss out on a laser pointed at there, but it is exactly the kind of thing that I suspect the ATF uses to drive rogue apocalyptics out of their concrete bunkers. Perhaps doomsday cults should start trolling music blogs for recruits.

"Labyrinths" is easily described as boring - not much obvious happens in it, but if you look at the double meaning of boring, pieces like this have a way of boring holes in your consciousness, acting as sonic trepanning chisels or as cleansing radiation, evaporating the bad and leaving the good via some obscure protocol. There is tremendous beauty in the small details of this music, or even in the projection of detail the convergence of situational dynamic and wanting something to happen can create. Or, if I may co-opt a bit about marriage from the more famous Kirkegaard:

Often I have sat by a bit of purling water. It is always the same, the same soft melody, the same green plants on its floor, swaying beneath its quiet waves, the same little creatures running about at the bottom, a little fish which glides under eth protection of the overhanging flowers, spreading out its fins against the current, hiding under a stone. How monotonous, and yet how rich in change! Such is home life of marriage: quiet, modest, purling—it has not many changements, and yet like that water it purls, yet like that water it has melody, dear to the man who knows it, dear to him above all other sounds because he knows it. It makes no pompous display, and yet sometimes there is shed over it a luster which does not interrupt its customary course, as when moonbeams fall upon the water and reveal the instrument upon which it plays its melody. Such is the home life of marriage.

Kirkegaard Anthology, pg 93. Pulled from here