Sarah Hennies, Cristián Alvear Montecino – Orienting Response (mappa, 2016)
Mappa seeks out work which ‘presents a neverending cassette loop, a radical approach to reductive repetition, created out of minimal material with maximal precision, modesty, and canniness’. The score Orienting Response (2015-16), written by American composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies specifically for Chilean guitarist Cristian Alvear, meets these requirements in full. I’ve never seen the words ‘canny’, or even ‘modesty’ used to describe a style or type of music, but they’re both correct. A measure of restraint, a humility in the offering and yet a confidence in the impact that such approaches can sustain.
Having played classical guitar myself since early childhood, absorbed the historical and contemporary repertoire and thought long and hard over the future of the instrument, I would have to say that this kind of composition* – sparse, instructional, open-ended if I might say so – indeed makes a valuable contribution, within its own niche, to a sustainable future for the instrument, specifically the nylon-strung acoustic guitar played with the fingers. A new virtuosity founded on the disciplines of severe concentration, sensitivity to the instrument as a generator of sound, to the strengths and limitations its articulatory potential, especially its function as an instrument of percussion, a turning away from finger memory and ingrained habits. The focus is on deeper listening, on form arising from contrasts between extended passages of repeating figures. One often feels in the background an awareness of the structural use of silence.
As the composer herself says, “Orienting Response was written specifically for Cristian Alvear at his request. In writing the piece I wanted to see if I could create the same kind of focus and intensity I have created with percussion instruments using an instrument (the nylon stringed guitar) that is naturally not well-equipped to produce the type of timbres or high dynamic levels that I have worked with up to this point.”
You can buy or stream the two pieces of this album on Mappa’s bandcamp page:-
*The score is composed of six parts with short instructions describing some unusual techniques, such as:
Play as accurately and consistently as possible but with the assumption that “mistakes” are inevitable.
Allow “mistakes” to occur, do not attempt to correct them.
All sounds should ring freely (as long as is possible) unless otherwise indicated.
All timings and tempi are approximate and flexible.
Thanos Chrysakis – piano, harp
Ernesto Rodrigues – viola
Guilherme Rodrigues – cello
Miguel Mira – double bass
Abdul Moimême – electric guitar
Recorded on 8th January 2015, Lisbon
I haven’t had much time to review of late. I also find it difficult to understand and appreciate some of the albums that come my way. There’s just so much music out there and a lot of it sounds the same. Not so with Exaíphnes, sent to me by the wonderful and verstatile Thanos Chrysakis, whose music both solo and collective I’ve enjoyed over many years. This is such a wonderful offering – any problems around how to approach contemporary idioms are left behind as we listen to what is, simply, good music, a reality on its own, inhabiting its own space and obeying its own inner formal logic.
Exaíphnes means ‘suddenly’ or ‘unexpectedly’ which is odd because there were no shocks or sudden events as far as I could make out. No need, as Paul Virilio fears with so much of today’s fast and furious art, for the armchair to become the fighter pilot’s cockpit. Restraint (excuse my ignorance of Greek) would have been a far more appropriate title because Exaíphnes flows without too many sudden twists and turns. The only unexpected thing is the title. I know now that it refers to something social – to how the musicians were taken by surprise at what they had created, at the unfolding of their own processes.
There are three tracks, all played by a very tight band, each recognisable as the distinctive music of that ensemble. Most listeners will notice this as the first of the album’s many strengths. In track I, for example, with its nuances of ritual, you become familiar with the sounds very quickly, with their shapes and articulations, to the point that individual parts and overall coalescence become of equal weight, one of the hallmarks of a sound ensemble. There is compactness and consistency, fine interplay and responsiveness and few if any little flights of fancy towards morphological impoverishment. This relaxes the listener but keeps the ear keen. Instrumentation comes over as clever orchestration. The recognisability of the electric guitar is, wisely, well masked. To be honest I don’t really need to unpick too many strands from the work because I can guarantee that any listener to new music will immediately appreciate the high standards of this ensemble’s work. If this is free improvisation, and I think it is, there’s a deep understanding of emergent form, however abstract and indeterminate the organisation, an underlying implicate order, a holomovement, foregrounded by a distinctive ensemble sound which sets this work apart from a lot of what I’ve heard in the idiom. In addition to the variety and pace of the music, track I has a ‘proper’ ending to the piece – a gentle quiet diminuendo.
Track II opens with a beautifully sustained textural exploration which could, like the track itself, have spun out its formal properties over a much longer duration, such was the musical interest. This track in particular had something of the orient going on, eastern-flavoured drums, gongs and a windy blown thing of unknown origin. Very inventive. Yet there’s no percussionist as such listed nor any strictly categorised percussion instruments so the duties must have been shared using extended techniques and sustained timbres. Track III offers again an excellent blend of percussive sounds in which everything is wholesome and consistent, the kind of consistency one expects from conventional instruments. There is also, as you listen over time, a very gentle collective touch where nothing abrasive is allowed to intrude.
My only criticism is directed at a possible weakness towards the end, where the music strays, becomes a bit directionless, a common problem in freely improvised music – if that’s what we have here – as if everyone is waiting and anticipating that the others will come to an end. But the many strengths of the music easily outweigh this small blip.
I can’t recommend the album highly enough. Even though tracks I and II are in my opinion too short, which unbalances the album a little, this instrumental ensemble is quite masterful in its simplicity and utterly convincing throughout. It all sounds like an album played by a seasoned band made up of the same personnel and who have been playing together for ages. That tells you something about the music.
Released on Creative Sources Recordings
Francisco Lopez, untitled #281 [31:49]
released on Störung
created by extreme transformation of bird calls from all over the world between 1995 and 2010.
untitled #281 is a finely structured album which makes good use of its limited resources, and which, typically for Lopez, offers original transformations resulting in some fascinating sound objects.
The album is structured as a series of episodes, each dealing with the source material in a specific way. You can guess at the sound sources for the most part but there’s a virtuosic turn here and there as Lopez transforms and sculpts his representational material into various abstractions. For example there’s a very fine effective passage of dynamic whooshing and rushing sounds, which recalls the sound world of a previous Lopez album WITH/IN, a collaboration with dancer Valentia Lacmanovic. This in particular contrasts well with the interesting but largely recognisable organic sounds (birds and insects). Always one to try something extreme (in previous releases, long silences, long crescendi and diminuendi) Lopez introduces digital clipping alongside complementary iterative material, a clever musical decision in keeping with the morphology of the accompanying material.
Another memorable passage makes use of a long decrescendo and low ambient pedals. Then sudden intrusions, various environments, thick drones and dense layers of noise. There are also classic electroacoustic moves, for example big dropouts falling to little sounds at the very end.
There’s another side to this kind of music-making which often leads to heated debate in some circles who offer a specific critique of artistic practice. A lot of air miles have gone into the making of this work over the years. If the artist was making the point, as some do, that we should celebrate and treasure these pristine natural environments, one might take issue, as I do, about someone running up enormous carbon footprints in order to showcase and benefit from these same pristine environments. But to be fair I can’t say that this is the case here as I don’t know how much the overt celebration and treasuring of these environments is a part of Lopez’ project. I’m not aware of this as an over-riding agenda. Continuing with the digression then, for those who do take the hypocritical stance of celebrating the natural environment by actively assisting in its destruction, media figures and sound artists alike, their attitude is at the core of the environmental problem today and relates to personal ethics. On the other hand should we be telling people what to do or suggesting that they’re behaving irresponsibly? Can we do as we please without consequence? Of course a lingering trace of modernist artistic cynicism will justify everything in the name of art but not for much longer. Neutrality is no longer an option.
I suppose then we’re left with the question – could you make equally good music at home, in the bird sanctuary or at the zoo?
I’ve listened to this album many times and would say that Anla Courtis seems to favour specific musical values: musical meaning expressed by means of a plurality of sound sources and inventiveness of composition; an almost historical approach to the making of the album – a sort of retrospective glance at methods and sound archives and consequently the possibility of nostalgia in setting out a lo-fi environment; short episodic pieces each exploring their own corner of sonic territory; inventiveness within the limitations of a of restricted palette. The sources are diverse – electric guitar, tapes, bags, bells, bronceosasma system, pipes, turntable, violin, plastic trumpet, music box and processing. The music was recorded on to 4-track cassette in the early 90s and, though we are left to guess, possibly reworked.
The album is quite simple to describe but hard to recall. I can’t form an image of the music in my head as I can with, say, the music of Mark Fell or Francsisco Lopez, to take two well-known contrasting artists.
Side A has a quiet start with rumbles, clicks and loops. Then pauses and synthy pads. The music starts to become a mixture of more concrete recorded material and device-driven sounds set out as short passages of disconnected material. The foregrounds, generally identifiable timbres, are often layered with noise. Away from the processes, concepts and gestures, in purely sonic terms some of the noise passages are quite interesting as are those which focus on sound rather than organisation of sounds.
Side B offers some contrast. Things seem to run and evolve a little more freely, though again with fairly recognisable sounds, some surprises (for example something resembling a WEM copicat in full voice and something else resembling a Romanian nose flute) and carefully considered injections of feedback and resonance. Even with somewhat bland electric guitar sounds everything is extremely well-crafted and musically structured.
The whole album, to put it simply, sounds very experimental, like an invitation to a not-quite-mad professor’s lab which lends the work an atmosphere of warmth, generosity, honesty, humor and enjoyment. These are not to be treated lightly and are the qualities that make Courtis’ music so accessible.
I asked some questions of the artist questions to help me understand his choices, ideas and processes:-
What makes you decide to use so many different sound sources? Do you restrict yourself, are the resources simply what you have to hand or do you make a conscious decision to work with what one might call lo-fi sources?
The LP is from the early 90’s when I started with solo recordings. I got my first portastudio and I discovered a whole world recording in my own bedroom. Four channels on cassette! It was all fresh and new so it was exciting to try out many sounds sources and record with them as much as possible. The lo-fi aspect has to do with the cassette itself: since I didn’t get a computer until the end of the 90’s that was the only way for me to make these kind of pieces. By the way I like the cassette sound a lot – magnetic tape has some organic quality that works very well with some stuff so I still use the portastudio sometimes.
What do the titles mean – are they significant in the context of the music?
The titles are based on a neologism that connects the words “cassette” and “utopia”. Despite the fact that the name came afterwards I think it describes pretty well the spirit of that moment.
I sensed a structure of short-ish disconnected pieces. Is this a deliberate formal choice, driven by restrictions in the material or something else?
The pieces themselves are in a way all pretty different which was a kind of hallmark of that moment. To choose a sound source, to try to do something with it not knowing very well where it would end up were all part of the creative process. And I think it’s still nice that the pieces don’t sound all the same.
Some, perhaps a majority of the pieces, are gestural and quite linear. Is this again a deliberate compositional choice or is this driven by a live mixing approach to making the work? I suppose I’m asking about spontaneity here as well.
During those years I was pretty aware of my limitations so to focus only on one sound or one idea was something normal. In the end maybe that helped a bit the pieces to avoid becoming too “pretentious”. However now I find that early simplicity to be something not only anecdotic but also pretty interesting in itself.
Released as a vinyl lp on ini.itu
I want to begin this review by offering some statements of meaning about Kraig’s work, about the communicative power of his work, bearing in mind that I’ve known of Kraig and his work for around fifteen years and that recently we were fortunate to meet up in person after many years of correspondence on microtonality and other musical topics.
I’d say then that I’ve found much of Kraig’s research and creative output over the years to be consistently compelling, evocative, unique and memorable. What I find compelling is his dedication to an art which is fundamentally complex, requiring an investment of high levels of both time, energy and resources. Grady’s work combines the required practical craftsmanship (to design and manufacture instruments) and the well-honed mathematical skills (in the design and understanding of a range of tunings and their musical applications). Yet we the listeners are rewarded by an accessible and easily understood sound world.
Because of the underlying Anaphorian context, this half-real, half-imaginary continent with its own ethical and musical codes, the music is always evocative in its reference to aspects of this hidden place with its various spaces, qualities and attributes. The fact that shadow puppetry and other hybrid theatrical and movement forms have provided containers for Anaphorian music over many years enhances its evocative powers. It is all of these details taken together which make the music unique and memorable in my view. Although there is plenty of microtonal music out there, both old and new, perhaps even played on hand-made instruments which resemble those of Kraig Grady, there’s nothing which blends the old and the new so seamlessly and which binds the instruments and their tunings together into such a tight and accessible creative output– even the music of Harry Partch runs so fast at times that the powers of the tuning can be lost on the listener and the instruments cannot sustain long enough to let the tuning work its magic.
Our short dialogue might help the reader/ listener to understand Grady’s intentions and creative output.
To what extent is the Anaphorian world view a prominent element in your musical aesthetic? Perhaps you could tell me a little about what Anaphoria represents.
I appreciate this question as it is quite misunderstood. Anaphoria should not be envisioned as an appendix to its music as much as music being just one element immersed inside of it. It is an extension of the installation that includes virtual space, performance practices, recordings, live performance and shadow theatre and installation. The most comprehensive view is presented on the website (www.anaphoria.com). It is the world folded into itself.
As much installation can be traced to theatre, this work began from a musical perspective, so the question is a logical one. Possibly seeing Partch’s instruments on stage as a presence coming from some unknown land would be a germinal seed.
Anaphoria allows for a more truthful representation of myself, being as I am of nine known nationalities, an exile from many societies. This mixture makes the possibility of any single mundane geography inadequate to represent a point of orientation, so a model became fruitful in which they could each communicate contrapuntally, and manifest the type of creolization that results. This is similar to what one often finds on islands inhabited from many different directions. All these backgrounds are folded into one place. As more and more people become more and more mixed, hopefully such a model might be useful in the future to deal with the dilemma of such situations. Music is a wonderful medium by which to represent such a space as my favorite music always implies the space in which it is heard. It is as much a way of hearing as what is heard and it gives us a context for who is hearing the music and where they are.
I can’t tell at times what is improvised and what is composed. Can you tell me something about the relationship between the two in your work?
I am glad to hear that. I have a strong compensatory nature so that in the presence of composers I speak about the importance of improvisation, and among improvisers will point out the strengths of composition. For the most part there is always a score for my acoustic music. The purpose of the score has always been an interactive guide for performers, often in conjunction with oral instructions or dialogues. Rarely do two pieces share the same type of score and different sections too might require a new form of placing the material.
I am interested in what humans can do and do together as opposed to exploring just how well they can take orders together. Electronics provides us with precision and the ability to work directly with the sound when strict order is required. Acoustic and/or live music allows us the opportunity to explore more human freedom and collaboration since the demands of the past can be accomplished elsewhere.
I should also point out though that the instruments themselves act as a part of the score in that what freedom is given to the performer is still shaped by the layout of the instruments. This is an element that might develop over a long period of time where the same set of bars might undergo as many as four different layouts before one alone is decided upon. The tuning of the scale also predetermines much as we can see how impossible 12-tone equal temperament has been able to move beyond atonality or regress into past practices. Different scales involve completely different sonic worlds which are ripe for exploring as soon as one no longer feels an obligation to make concessions to past practices.
Finally, can you say something about the connection between the elements of landscape in ‘Escarpments’ and the music? Are these impressionistic or is the music analogous to the textures and rhythms of the landscape.
I think our relationship to nature is at least twofold. There is the ‘observational’ view of it as seen from a scientific perspective, which is useful but risks saying more about the observer and the method of observing than about what it is they are observing. Are we observing nature or are we just engaged in a form of aesthetic scientism? The second relationship could be described as psychological – how does our soul react to nature? Here I believe that the observer is less hidden. The question of the titles also brings up the question of music expressing ideas in which I think we have to also entertain the possibility of the opposite as being also possible, where music generates ideas that wouldn’t occur otherwise. There is a danger of taking what an artist says about their work as being methodical. We might argue against music altogether and just relay the idea, but art strives more for reflection than knowledge. It keeps us in suspense, avoiding any resolution. Knowledge on the other hand allows us to leave it behind us, as James Hillman pointed out, since we move on once we know. In the case of Escarpments the titles mostly followed the music depending on the piece but they also reflect poetic fragments drifting in synchronicity.
Released as a vinyl lp on ini.itu
It has become fashionable in some sound and new music quarters to sneer and snipe at R. Murray Schafer and his ideas on the soundscape. In particular I’ve noticed that the ideas set forth in Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World come under attack for being nostalgic, romantic (without defining what this means), idealist, utopian – the list goes on. Of course the detractors rarely come up with any positive ideas themselves. And no I’m not going to name names – that’s for the reader to discover. The critics, if I may dignify them with such a title, range from academics seeking to distinguish their own second-hand ideas to the composer who seeks to validate his or her compositional aesthetic. Personally I doubt if many of the snipers have actually taken time to read the book from cover to cover. I confess openly that after years of taking for granted the comments and half-baked opinions of others I took the plunge just the other week and, in a fit of self-righteousness, sat down and enjoyed every page.
I can’t see the problem with Schafer. Here we have a man of the ’70s, writing before some of the critical hipsters were born (or even their parents), setting forth some of the most revolutionary ideas ever heard on sound awareness, soundscape research, acoustic design, noise abatement, soundmapping and progressive educational initiatives designed to improve our collective lot. The book is accessible, meaning that ordinary people like me understood every word without having to re-read anything. It’s accessible because Schafer uses examples from the real world of human experience and hence doesn’t write like an academic talking in rarified abstractions to his pals. This book speaks to everyone – it succeeds in communicating complex and sophisticated ideas in a language that I can understand. This is what I expect from an academic publisher. Jonathan Sterne comes to mind as another author capable of communicating elaborate ideas simply and with ample illustrations.
I think that Schafer’s detractors suffer from a mixture of envy and fear, which probably amounts to extreme jealousness. They are jealous of the fact that he came up with so many groundbreaking ideas, definitions and programmes of study for future generations and they’re afraid that that they might not be able to come anywhere near to emulating his achievements or his breadth of vision.
His definition of the soundscape as ‘any acoustic field of study: musical composition, radio program, acoustic environment’ seems fine to me in its breadth and open-ness. It needs to be revived and re-promoted because the word ‘soundscape’ has been hijacked on the one hand by the largely Canadian school of soundscape composition which privileges a referential and narrative style of making work, and on the other hand by a seething mass of ambitious academics and institutional types who seek to reap various professional rewards out of all the hard work that Schafer and others did several decades ago.
Sounding a less harsh note I can fully appreciate the benefits that soundscape research has brought to the world of sonic art but there still seems to be far too much indolence as researchers continue to wallow in abstract mapping, scholastically counting the number of angels on pinhead.s Schafer’s definition of a soundscape researcher as someone who is concerned with changes in perception and behaviour reminds me that I’m still waiting for qualitative research to show an edge on quantitative research and the endless measuring of sonic phenomena.
I will always vigorously defend Schafer’s description of the hi-fi and lo-fi environments because the drift towards lo-fi environments, cool as they might be for hip urban types, signal environmental degradation and a lessening of human sensitivity to the signals of such destructive processes. It’s a political issue that helps to expose the fallacious (and stupid) liberal humanist orthodoxy whereby everyone can do what they like as long as nobody gets in anyone else’s way. You don’t have to like the hi-fi, as many hip urbanites do so smugly, but you should surely acknowledge that what Schafer says is undeniably true, that the lo-fi city abbreviates the facility for distant hearing and that there is cross-talk on nearly every channel, that a hi-fi environment has a favourable signal to noise ratio, discrete sounds are heard clearly because of a low ambient noise level, sounds overlap less frequently and a background/ foreground perspective is clearly available. Whilst some of the attributes of lo-fi environments are useful in the creation of electroacoustic and noise musics, they are not so good for peace and quiet in the dwelt environment, regardless of fashionable urbanism where the listener is largely anaesthesised by traffic noise. Since when did traffic noise add to the quality of life? Growing traffic machine and aircraft noise is a sign that we’re further down the road to self-destruction. Or have I missed something obvious?
Schafer also set the compass towards a very productive programme of educational research in which environmental sound, of whatever provenence, would be appreciated in the sense of evaluated, given value, positively or negatively. This is how we arrive at consensus and as a result influence policy makers. I can’t imagine a generation of sonically well-educated youngsters asking for more bad architecture, traffic and the destruction of wilderness areas and green space. Finally, Schafer also promotes the benefits of slowing down and listening as physical and psychological therapy and God knows we need some of that!
At conferences on sonic matters over the past decade and in amongst the plethora of pap(ers) on soundscape studies I’ve come across some very harsh criticism of the notion of acoustic ecology. To be honest these people sound like the far right of the Tory party talking about environmentalists – tree hugging, sandal wearing, bearded, whale loving losers (of dubious sexual orientation no doubt). This is unfortunate and shameful because if these regressives took time to read the source material they’d find out that acoustic ecology is defined as ‘the study of the relationship between living organisms and their environment.’ Acoustic ecology is ‘the study of sounds in relationship to life and society’. It’s a study which take place on location, not in the laboratory (budding researchers please take note) and as such is essential as a preliminary activity to acoustic design. I think this is perfect. It’s radical (from radix– gets to the root of the problem) and revolutionary at the same time. It challenged the status quo then and still does today. We still don’t have enough awareness of acoustic ecology at the level of executive power largely because the implications challenge capital in general and specific corporate interests in particular. While I’m on this tack Schafer could be seen as a good Marxist, or Marxian if we want to be less controversial, in his contention that the soundscape is a musical composition. We human beings create or better still produce the soundscape, in much the same way that Henri Lefebvre talks of the production of space, and as such we can change it. Of course that depends on the prior existence of a ‘we’ which is becoming less and less of a possibility in today’s political climate, at least in the UK. Schafer always maintained that the power required to retrieve a significant aural culture should never come from above.
Although there are some fine individual and institutional initiatives out there, usually working with limited resources, composers still aren’t ready yet to assume a leadership role, something that Schafer noted in the 70s. We can’t expect visual artists to do the job for us, can we?
- Settle [10:23]
- Expenditures [40:28]
Nick Hennies lives in Ithaca, New York. He was formerly based in Austin, Texas and is perhaps best known for his explorations of the vibrational properties of woodblocks. The very informative promotional literature for this album tells us that ‘Nick Hennies makes music from work – and work into music. Simply put, work is process and one of Hennies’ goals as a composer is to shape the possibilities of a given instrument as well as its sonic imprint. The result is austere, lyrical solo percussion music that focuses on resonance, natural overtones, room acoustics and slowly developing structure.’ We are also told that Hennies likes to explore quite a wide variety of musical approaches in his creative output.
Musical people tend to have all sorts of values attached to their listening and experience of music, both in their own music and that of others. I’m no different and I tend to value some sort of consistency in an album of work. I should say though that in the absence of a dialogue with Nick himself I can only go on what I have to listen to. So for reasons of my own I found one piece to be of great interest and the other less so. Others will differ in their perceptions, obviously. There are two pieces, the ten minute and the forty minute. To my ears the ten minute piece Settle speaks of an almost environmental approach to listening, restraint in execution, intense concentration, personal discovery and even expression. The album is worth purchasing for these qualities alone. A solo vibraphone gently but firmly sets out a simple shifting ostinato which flirts with arpeggiation. A well placed occasional shimmer in the background and a harmonic sheen in the later stages of the piece lend interest to the austerity of the foreground. It’s a simple as that. There’s no fatigue in the piece owing to the diatonicism of the instrument (I assume it’s equally tempered). The beatings and combination tones are rich yet tightly controlled in that they don’t overpower the clearly percussive nature of the work. The inharmonicity of the metallophone does its work beautifully. It’s somewhere in the depth and strength of concentration on the sound of the music that Nick Hennies has something going.
The longer piece Expenditures is for ensemble and vibraphone. From the promotional literature we are told that ‘Here Hennies is joined by several Austin new music regulars, including bassists Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Brent Fariss, drummer Chris Cogburn, clarinettist Jon Doyle, trombonist Steve Parker and violinist Travis Weller. As Hennies puts it, the goal of the piece is for the musicians to play sustained tones on the same pitches as the vibraphone and then eventually to play ‘work music,’ where the players each come up with their own phrase to be repeated until the end of the piece.’ Expenditures begins like Settle with a solo vibraphone ostinato, drawing the listener into the same world of restraint and concentration. Then the spell is broken as it shifts from being a listening environment in which ‘sound’ overrides ‘music’ and process overrides gesture to an environment where the history of Western music seems to rudely intervene. Distinct ‘contemporary’ structures take over and a more analytical frame of mind is required to process the stream of musical information as other instruments begin to weave formal patterns and create ever changing timbral structures. For me this is too much too soon, though the last minute or so returns to a more contemplative mood in which the vibraphone and a low drum succeed in creating something of the simplicity and strong sonic interest which gave the fist piece so much of its elegance.