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?
Bjarni Gunnarsson – Processes & Potentials (2013)
Bjarni Gunnarsson’s Processes & Potentials is underpinned by a series of beliefs about the nature of processes, transformations and events. Although the sleeve notes explain some of what is supposed to be going on I should really say something about the composer’s mission statement. It’s possible that the simulation of chemical or biological processes is an attempt to defy linearity (or the perception of linearity), in which case gestural activity and its behaviour will be crucial, as will the complexity of relationships between different layers, their interpenetration and miscibility. This is a bold mission. On a different tack Gunnarrson would also seem to be advocating a compositional approach which is guided by the qualities and attributes of the materials to hand, allowing them to inform the work as it unfolds, instead of working from a preconceived plan or score. This much is usually expected within the contemporary electroacoustic idiom. Plenty is said then about process, some of which I don’t understand fully, but it would seem as if a process is made of events as opposed to things, which I also don’t understand because an event can also be a thing. You could of course take the view that none of this is particularly relevant to the music which has its own measure of complexity without the subtext.
As first impressions go Aukera is a dense piece, and harsh on the ears at times. It is also very loud, as are all the individual pieces in terms of high average levels and reduced dynamic range, which places the album in the same mastering domain as pop music or some electronic noise forms from the look of the squared-off waveforms. The overall impression is of a very involved and dense totality but on closer listening there’s less activity going on between the different levels of composition and more in the way of crossfading between enveloped layers. Some of the electronic blips are rather hackneyed as are some moments where the whoosh of panned broadband sound come straight out of the academic acousmatica handbook, though in the second wave of this particular piece some interesting sounds begin to develop.
Portholes offers a crackly and noisy hiss with a cacophony of metallic sounds and electronic squiggles, all somewhat familiar from the core of the concert electroacoustic idiom. The music becomes well-paced with the introduction of tonal passages and machine-like sounds. There follows a somewhat predictable return to the first sounds, then to a more static interlude which at least gives the piece a feeling of an evolving linear structure. What I don’t hear is any great effort at creating inner dynamic morphological investigation across the various micro-, meso- and macro- levels of the work, which would have convinced me that processes were indeed being investigated in depth. The piece ends with a return to the more tonal passage which then morphs slowly into machine-like sound with crackly textures.
Momentaries is even more tonal, almost orchestral as a nascent chord emerges and then recedes in different inversions. Eventually the hissy bits return, as expected, though less forcefully than in the previous pieces. Here Gunnarsson is still working with simple polyphony in crossfaded layers and, again somewhat predictably, something of the alien movie begins to creep in. More whooshing sounds reappear– is this the consistency across the work that we read about in the sleeve notes – similarity in timbres appearing and reappearing throughout? I still haven’t heard much transformation in the liquid sense – perhaps what he means is the representation of these processes as in perhaps a film score accompanying a visual presentation of the various processes. There is certainly something of the mad-scientist-in-his-lab going on and indeed there is plenty of this kind of music currently doing doing the rounds. The bump and fizzle of the ending once again presents us with a fine textbook acousmatic gesture to end the piece.
Signac – more crackle and hiss with a fine low end. If it wasn’t for the hissy crackly stuff then something more recognisably ‘musical’ might be heard to develop. The condiments run the risk of overpowering the main dish. There are some effective efforts at creating variety in the flow of the piece, with some harsh cuts and even a synthy sweep, again very sci-fi and filmic. The listener will inevitably come away with the feeling that a lot of compositional attention has gone into producing these pieces, in a conventional sense: change of pace, flow, some effort at varying dynamic range, contrast and so on, and, if this is a compositional virtue, a recurrence of similar sounds in different combinations. Many of the foregrounded sounds could be machines or simulated machine sounds. I’d guess that these are not field recordings – if they are then they are heavily processed and would benefit from having retained some of the rough edge that field recordings can offer. Again the overall structure is a fairly simple 2 – 4 part polyphony.
If one listens carefully Concomitance is not too different from the others. This leaves you, depending on your interpretation, with either a very tight sound world or lack of variety. A justifiable reason for the introductory compositional mission statement might be that Gunnarsson wants the listener to lean towards the first interpretation. Some well-shaped dynamics in the helicopter sounds take us again into the realm of solid film sound design, which (with all due respect) is where I think Gunnarsson would excel. The world of robotics, space flight, phasers, the take-off and landing envelopes, the timbres themselves, all beefed up with a good measure of well crafted reverberation where necessary to spread out the elements of the soundworld – it’s all classic stuff. Technically there are some cleverly wrought passages, for example the use of bandpass filtering to foreground low and high sounds at the expense of the the midrange. There is certainly a lot of attention given to varying the frequency range. On the downside the hiss by this point is becoming pervasive and even slightly intrusive.
Pedicel offers us more of the same which makes me wonder why Gunnarsson chose to present this album as six smaller pieces instead of one long piece. Waves of hiss and crackle play over a low drone. The restricted range of timbres forbid any deeper level morphological development which to me is the essence of progressive electroacoustic music, otherwise there’s a risk that you are simply producing linear and/or simple contrapuntal orchestral music with computers. The panoramic activity, as with all the pieces, is excellent. There is some unpredictability in a sudden break to a less frenetic and more tonal episode at around 3 ½ minutes which risks confusing the listener – is the next bit a new piece or is it a contrast as in a slow/fast or loud/soft classical movement?
A lot of hard work has gone into this album and despite my seemingly critical stance, I think that it stands a good bit above many similar works, though largely in terms of compositional craftsmanship as opposed to invention or originality. One element or quality that seems to be lacking is the incisive edge which the use of concrète sounds can bring to the textures.
Finally processes, in the sense that I think the composer wishes to have us understand them, are chemical reactions or other events that result in a transformation. One might listen to the music and imagine such events taking place, though this will depend on the individual’s imagination. For music to act as some kind of analogue to the workings of biological or chemical processes, a much higher degree of complexity would be required in the use of the sonic materials to hand.
Bjarni Gunnarsson’s Processes & Potentialsis released on 3LEAVES
Jeff Gburek’s The Watermark comes over as an extremely well produced album with the guitar at its heart. The signature sound of acoustic and prepared electric guitars is accompanied by Javanese rebab or spike fiddle, sitar, bass recorder, piano, voice and vocal effects, field recordings and software processing. The problem, fairly obvious, would lie in the organisation of such a variety of seemingly unrelated instruments and sound sources. Gburek has chosen not to throw everything together in a freely improvised session or two and hope that an avant-garde aesthetic excuses the results. Instead each track impresses the listener with a sense of composition, arrangement and sensitivity to the sound sources. Many of the tracks come across as folk-ish songs, without words, but with a hint of electroacoustic awareness in the background textures and flutters.
The guitar for the most part is clean, apart from touches of reverb, delay and perhaps an octaver. Several tracks, notably 1, 3 and 6, set up delicate arpeggiated chord progressions characterised by their lack of resolution or clear direction. Around these fragile foundations wander the various gnomic voices (singing into a microphone held in the mouth), whistles and crackles or rebab phrases. Track 1 in particular offers a verse and chorus structure which hints at compositional beginnings on the guitar. The preparations are straightforward and effective – what sounds like ebbing and flowing ebowed passages on track 5, guitar activated by means of a portable ventilator on track 8 and, more conventionally, slide guitar on track 6.
What I found interesting was the range of moods offered throughout the album. It would be easy to label the music as ‘ambient’ in the original sense of the word. But within this catch-all there is much variety. Some of the tracks are simply relaxing. Track 4 for example, though perhaps a bit long, would keep many a stoner happy with its lazy, droney Pink Floydish feelgood atmosphere. Track 5, hypnotic and mesmeric, leaves us hanging in space and time with a mix of high pass filtered folky vocals, a pedal on two pitches, background glitches and electronics. In introducing some new instruments, piano and bass recorder, along with a folky and disembodied voice and wolf sounds, track 7 resembles a traditional chant. The overall mood leans towards the mysterious, even disturbed, more like sound design for a film. Track 8 extends and develops this darker discourse.
For lovers of the guitar and in particular those who appreciate new approaches to embedding the guitar in fresh environments, this will be an enjoyable addition to the cd collection. Work like this always offers a challenging contrast between the recognisability of the guitar, which pins everything down, and the less recognisable accompanying instrumental, vocal or electronic gestures and textures. I would add here that Gburek has wisely avoided relying too heavily on software processing and unnecessary electronic padding. The album comes over very well, to my ears at least, as primarily an acoustic exploration which sits between popular and experimental idioms.
I would also applaud the fact that this is very peaceful music, not in a new age sense, but in the sense that there is no Mr Nasty posturing to be found anywhere. We get a sense of homeliness and gentle engagement with the artist and his collaborators.
I’ve made several references to folk and folkiness. My final comment, and this is purely personal, would be that I think the album could have gone even further in the exploration of what I’d call a conceptual folk idiom. By this I mean a music where there are allusions, hints and connotations of ‘folkiness’, from a variety of world traditions, without any predominance, a sound world in which the listener is left with a mixed feeling of familiarity (homeliness) and mystery (otherness). Although this music is possibly yet to be made, The Watermark makes gentle and positive steps in the right direction.
The Watermark is available at Orphan Sound
Numen [49:19] is a 2012 release on Aural Terrains. Here we have laptop and electronics from Thanos Chrysakis, digital synthesis and field recordings from Wade Matthews. The pair have played together in a variety of outfits and combinations over the years as well as in their own solo projects. Their collective music is characterised above all by a highly developed sense of originality, inventiveness and what I’d call an irrepressible investigation into ever new combinations of sound sources. It also steers away from what I’d call an academic acousmatic idiom, largely through the use of humour in the choice of field recordings, animal sounds, vocal intrusions and the like and in the deliberate avoidance of ‘development’ in the historico-musical sense that a sonata develops previously introduced material. Any development to be found is reserved for the longer pieces, where a feeling of intensity emerges as part of the pacing and of the ebb and flow of the work.
There are six pieces, ranging in duration from less than three minutes to seventeen minutes, each adopting a characteristic approach to sound creation which leans towards the gestural and the linear. By gestural I mean that the sounds are clearly tailored, shaped and presented, each is distinctive and in general distinguishable from the other. By linear I mean that the texture is one where sounds come and go, either contrasting with or blending in well with neighbouring sounds. Any polyphonic or contrapuntal textures are clear yet incidental to the procession of highly wrought sounds. There is no focus on a deep investigation of morphology or density.
With this in mind any discussion would naturally settle on the kinds of sounds that the artists have created, digitally or otherwise, or selected, in the case of field recordings. It’s here, in my opinion, that the deepest appreciation of the album will lie. I should stress that what Chrysakis and Matthews have achieved here requires a high level of musical and technical skill. I’ve had to endure some truly horrible work which would seem to rely on throwing a bunch of gestures together from a range of acoustic and electronic instruments in the hope that something vaguely contemporary results. On first listening I thought (and was surprised, knowing the artists’ work as well as I do) that Numen was woven from a similar cloth. But, setting aside my personal taste in timbral matters, on subsequent auditions it becomes clear that many of the sounds are beautifully crafted, even deeply sensual in places, that the combinations are rigorously selected in terms of offering contrasts in frequency range, shape and movement. And all improvised to boot. This is an album that deserves close listening on a good sound system, many times over.
I’ve noticed from previous work a preference for metallic timbres and indeed these are foregrounded in several of the pieces. Track 4 in particular presents a highly effective contrast between chime and bell timbres on the one hand and churning watery sounds on the other. Of all the individual pieces this one in particular hints at some sort of timbral development. Track 5 offers similar fare at about five minutes in. The other notable feature is the manner in which electronics, digital synthesis and field recordings are brought together. None dominates the sound field, leaving the listener with an impression of integritysimilar to that found in a well balanced chamber ensemble.
Finally, the aforementioned recommended close listening will uncover the fact that very few if any of the sounds are hackneyed (meaning trite, dull or stereotyped). This is partly due to the artists’ attention to detail and largely due to the deployment of a high degree of inventiveness which can be heard at every level, from the boldest foregrounded sound to the subtlest background murmur.
Magma, Thanos Chrysakis
Magma is a 2011 release by Thanos Chrysakis on the Russian label Monochrome Vision. The work, a 30 minute piece in the electroacoustic idiom, makes extensive use of electronic devices, acoustic sounds and field recordings.
A piece of this length is a bold venture. Most electroacoustic, or if you prefer, acousmatic pieces, for fixed medium, are in the 8 – 12 minute category. Any longer and they probably wouldn’t get programmed, unless it’s a ‘classic’ like Dhomont’s Forêt Profonde. In fact last time I checked, most of the opportunities for this kind of music insist on shorter pieces, not to mention suffering from the most pathetic ageist regulations, but I digress. So releasing a longer work on a specialist label makes sense. If you want some fresh musical experiences I’d suggest that Monochrome Vision is well worth a visit.
I had forgotten how much I enjoy a good blast of acousmatic abstraction. Magma pushes all the buttons that you’d expect: inventiveness, pace, flow, expert use of a wide dynamic and spectral range. As a work based on a proliferation of gestures there is less in the way of morphological investigation by means of more sustained textures and the development of restricted resources. I put this down to the weight of the history of music in the teaching of this idiom – music has to go somewhere, has to show constant invention, keep busy, or be less so by contrast. In thinking about the whys and wherefores of acousmatic music Paul Virilio’s ideas about speed and information overload often come to mind. If music conjurs up a place or an inner space, then this isn’t a relaxing musical space or one made for reflection – it’s fast and furious most of the time, requiring an intellectual rather than an emotional response. All of which has its place.
This is a very well composed piece and I could go into great detail as to why I offer that conclusion, such as examining the complex relationships between the various strands of material. Primarily though, Magma succeeds in holding the listener’s attention for long periods, a very difficult feat in working with highly processed material of such abstraction.
I’ve always considered the core of acousmatic composition to be similar to working out in a gymnasium. You develop great strength, stamina and technique relating to an extremely focused area of endeavour. Your aural skills are honed to near perfection and your production values soar. Ultimately though, developing the analogy, there comes a time when you have to apply all this training to a sport, otherwise you end up with a big muscles, great strength and the only friends you have are in the gym. Or is that being unfair?
Thanos Chrysakis has since explored a range of new directions, in particular improvisational styles incorporating an electroacoustic sensibility. Magma in one sense is a (re-) statement of the artist’s credentials in which we are treated to his strong compositional skills – the collaborative and improvisational projects build on and extend these core strengths.