CD Reviews

Saturday 6th February – Guest Review by Simon Reynell

February 7, 2010

Well its way past midnight and I only just got home from work after a difficult and stressful day. Looking forward to a day’s rest tomorrow though and not getting out of bed before my body says its OK to. So I haven’t listened to any music again, and I haven’t had time to write again, but fear not dear readers as tonight I have a special treat for you, a review written by someone else…! Simon Reynell, he of Another Timbre fame has very kindly stepped in to write a lengthy review of two albums I have yet to hear, but hope to soon after reading his words. Thanks Simon for doing this, it has made my day that little bit easier, and the review makes good reading. So it follows:

This review covers two discs released at the end of last year on little-known labels by musicians who are probably also little-known in these parts:

Carol Robinson – Billows (plush) (naivsuper)

Both discs are very strong in their own way, but are totally different and for me at least represent two opposing poles of the music that I listen to.

13Carol Robinson is an American composer-clarinettist who has been living in France since 1979.  She has written music for theatre and dance as well as purely musical works, has produced sound installations, and plays as an improviser as well as an interpreter of contemporary classical music and jazz.  You are most likely to have come across her as the performer on a number of discs by composers such as Feldman, Scelsi, Phil Niblock or on Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak.  I always enjoy hearing an instrumentalist of great technical accomplishment, and that is certainly one of the pleasures of ‘Billows’, her solo release on the Plush label.  Here she gently transforms/extends her playing through electronics, using Max MSP programmes.

There are 12 shortish tracks, totalling in all 45 minutes, all of them exploring very similar territory, which is well described on the label publicity:  “minimal tones and textures advance and recede in an ultra-slow forming, transforming and unforming of chords and harmonic lines like the slow movement of a ship through still water, gliding without resistance.”

It is undoubtedly all beautiful stuff, but in a sense that is my problem with it.  It’s all of a level, and if you start with beautiful, clean shimmering sound, where do you then go?  The pieces all have the same feel; none stands out or disrupts the flow in any way, and I find that by 20 minutes in I very much want some contrast or ‘resistance’ to its graceful gliding.  Anyone who loves Radigue’s music or late Feldman is likely to enjoy Billows throughout, and I repeat that it is very beautiful, but it is only beautiful, and I personally want something more than that.

In an interview Carol Robinson recalls a formative meeting in 1982 with the ageing composer Giacinto Scelsi:   “Scelsi confirmed something that I felt: that music is an opening toward something beyond our reality. Reaching beyond borders, beyond what cannot quite be understood, what cannot be easily codified; this is my objective with improvised electronic music. Scelsi gave me the strength to trust my intuition.”

Now I happen to like a lot of music that is (or aspires to be) ethereal / transcendental, from Renaissance polyphony to Scelsi himself or the Wandelweiser composers.  But I think that the music that I love best occurs when this kind of ethereal otherworldly beauty is either threatened by or emerges out of a more mundane and prosaic soundworld, that includes something of the mess and ugliness of everyday life.  If music is (in part at least) “an opening toward something beyond our reality”, I personally still want to hear traces of that everyday reality, or at least of the process of moving from the everyday to the sublime.  And it’s this that I don’t hear in Billows, for all the cleanness and beauty of Robinson’s playing.

stock11Which brings me neatly to the disc, where grit, resistance, dirt and ugliness are all very much present. is a loose collective of composers and performers, mainly German, who’ve been around since 2002, though their new disc on the naivsuper label was the first time I had come across them.  In some ways they are like the punk wing of Neue Musik, using a deliberately provocative choice of materials and sound sources.  Though they claim not to represent a school or a single ideology, much of their music is about challenging conventional notions of beauty as something sublime and otherworldly, thrusting the listener’s nose very much in the mess and superficiality of the everyday.  This determination to shock the establishment could be tiresome, but I have found the results on their new cd both challenging and engaging, and – tellingly – although there are parts that I don’t like, I have come back to their disc much more than to Carol Robinson’s Billows.

There are six tracks by four composers, all including some use of electronics, and performed by one or more of three interpreters from the collective: Sebastian Berweck (piano), Jessica Rona (viola) and Daniel Groger (countertenor).

The first track is from a series of compositions by Martin Schüttler, typically and provocatively entitled ‘schöner leben’ (beautiful life).  On “schöner leben 1” the vocalist has been “imbued with the aura of a droll cabaret-style entertainer” and ‘sings’ cut-up extracts from an interview with the Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain while fumbling with a megaphone and accompanying himself rather inexpertly on electric piano, alongside an accompanying electronics track.  At first I didn’t like this piece much, but after repeated listens I’ve grown bizarrely fond of it.  It’s certainly ugly in parts, but perversely this has become part of its attraction (do ‘ugly’ sounds become ‘beautiful’ when you find yourself enjoying them? – one of the questions that the consistently beautiful Billows never asks).  It could be seen as clever-clever, too capricious, or conceptual, or juvenile, but several listens in I simply like it.

The second track – ‘splitting 15’ – is by Michael Maierhof (a composer who might be known to a few Watchful Ear readers through a cd of his compositions released on Werner Dafeldecker’s old Durian label, which contained four other pieces in his ‘splitting’ series).   This is more conventional ‘new music’ written for viola and an accompanying tape, itself possibly using sounds derived from the viola(?)   It’s an exploration / analysis of the viola and its physical sound-producing possibilities, very much in the tradition of Helmut Lachenmann’s ‘musique concrète instrumentale’, and is powerful stuff in an abrasive way, largely using single sounds that start and end without any apparent structure.  Less challenging conceptually than some of the other pieces, but an excellent listen.

Next comes Maximilian Marcoll’s ‘Samstag Morgen – Berlin Neukölln.  Studie, und Selsbtportrait. Mit Hirsch.  Für Klavier und Zuspielungen’.   The piece starts from a field recording that Marcoll made in the courtyard of the building where he lives.  Birdsong was prominent on the original recording, but rather than presenting it as such, Marcoll works on the sounds electronically, making the birdsong sound alien, and then superimposing a recording of himself going about his compositional activity (bumps, shuffles and all; this is the ‘selfportrait’ element).  All of these sounds are then transcribed for piano, and the treated tapes are played back simultaneously with the piano’s performance of them.  So we end up a long way from a conventional field recording piece, and for me the result is much more interesting.  Again, a lot of it is far from beautiful, and – for better or worse – it probably works much better if you know the underlying processes behind the music, but it’s another track that has consistently grown on me, and is a fascinating way of making a music that is firmly grounded in the everyday.  The sleevenotes talk of “a new – or more precisely, less mystical – notion of composition which in no way distinguishes between noble and ignoble, essential and expendable materials.”

The fourth track is another from Martin Schüttler’s ‘Schöner Leben’ series.  He describes the piece as a “study of the by-products of media” – the medium in this instance being mobile phone ringtones.  The viola part and midi-keyboard track are both based on transcriptions of mobile ring-tones, which are themselves taken from pop standards.  The ringtones have been edited / chopped about and the viola sounds are further transformed through preparations, but the material remains in parts startlingly ugly.  I could happily listen to the viola part on its own, but for me the piece as a whole remains challenging, pushing – as I’m sure it’s meant to – at my personal prejudices, at the boundaries of what I can accept / enjoy as ‘music’.  I don’t resent its being there at all, but after numerous listens I still can’t say that I ‘like’ it.

Next up is Daily Songs 2 – a second piece by Michael Maierhof – for voice, piano and tape, which is possibly my favourite on the disc.  As in Maierhof’s other piece, it has the sense of being a scientific analysis of the sonic possibilities of the given materials, but I find it really compelling music on an emotional level.  The countertenor sings through a plastic cup filled with marbles, giving his sounds a pseudo-electric transformation.  Similarly the piano is sounded only through rubbing a nylon string attached to the lowest string, which is itself attached to a plastic cup.  There is no structural development as such, but the basic sounds are great, and their juxtaposition works beautifully for me.

The final piece is by ‘Box for viola, countertenor, noise-maker and electronics’ by Hannes Seidl.  It is a reworking of an earlier piece ‘Gegenkontrolle’, which consists largely of the sounds of various objects being dropped on the floor.  Here this is the roll of the ‘noise-maker’, who ‘plays’ in a room adjacent to the countertenor and the violist.  The formlessness of the dropping sounds contrasts with the more conventional and sustained sounds of the viola and singer, as well as the (at times noisy) electronics in a really interesting way, and while always seeming on the point of falling apart, the whole piece holds together wonderfully.

It should be apparent by now that the disc comes from a totally different corner of contemporary music than Carol Robinson’s Billows, the two having underlying aesthetics that are diametrically opposed.  Both are well worth listening to, and together raise interesting questions about the place of beauty and ugliness in music, and of the relation between the everyday and the sublime.  I suppose a lot of people will like one but not the other, but I get something from both discs, and feel that together they define two of the opposing poles between which most of my music- listening takes place.  I’d recommend anyone into new / improvised music to give a listen to both and decide for themselves which they prefer.

Comments (5)

  • Jesse

    February 7, 2010 at 5:40 am

    Nicely done, Simon.
    Carol Robinson’s commission for the Naldjorlak cycle placed her on my radar, interesting to read about another project.

  • graham halliwell

    February 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Simon, Jesse, and others reading here, I have a question; do you think late Radigue is as interesting as early Radigue? I’m thinking of pieces such as Adnos, Geelriandre, Arthesis etc against recent works such as Elemental 2 and Naldjorlak. In other words, the “arid, solitary work” of 40 years ago compared to the work of “the most beautiful period of my life”. Enlighten me.

    Feel free to contribute, Richard 😉

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 7, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I personally prefer the older electronic material, though that doesn’t stop me enjoying the newer stuff a lot as well. I think some of the subtlety of Radigue’s personal vision might have been lost with the newer pieces that have been performed by other musicians rather than just being the direct output of Radigue’s own hands. The “solitary” element may have been precisely what made the music so individually impressive for me.

  • Jesse

    February 7, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    I admire Curtis’ contribution to the Naldjorlak cycle, but strongly prefer the Arp works.
    Ms Radigue says she is enjoying [read, emboldened, reinvigorated by] the process of working with the Naldjorlak musicians. She referred to the *aridity* of working alone for many hours with the Arp, I don’t think she meant the music as much as the solitary process. Seems like she is at a stage, nearing the end of her 8th decade, where collaboration is vital. The hermetic years are over, as are the works for Arp. She’s tuning up people now. :^p
    I would love to be wrong, but I don’t think she will surpass the power and glory of the Adnos and Death trilogies.

  • Massimo Ricci

    February 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    “L’île re-sonante” comes close, though.

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