Wednesday 23rd November

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Tired and stressed today, partly due to being up at 5AM for work and not getting home until twelve hours later, but also because I have been overdoing it lately trying to get too much done in too short a period of time. Still, I managed a few hours sleep this evening, which I hadn’t scheduled to happen, but clearly I needed it. Waking later tonight I put on a CD that I have been trying to get my head around for a few days now- a collection of composed trumpet solos by Stephen Altoft, who alongside the percussionist Lee Forrest Ferguson makes up half of Duo Contour, the group that released some great recordings of Beuger and Frey works on Wandelweiser a year or two back. This new disc is named The Yasser Collection, and contains nineteen pieces of music specially commissioned by Altoft from nineteen different composers. The number nineteen is important to this release because Altoft plays microtonal trumpet here, which apparently involves a tuning system in which the octave os divided into nineteen divisions rather than the standard twelve. Now I have to admit to being somewhat naive about how this kind of thing works. I’m not sure if a special kind of trumpet is required here, or if it has just been tuned in a different way, (can you do tune a trumpet?) or if the scores are just written in a specific manner. I suspect that an adapted instrument of some kind must be required but in truth I am clueless to this kind of thing, and doubtlessly my evaluation of the music here will then miss an important element of the music, but I can only respond how I know best…

So there is quite a mix of pieces here, and I don’t have the time to go through each of them, but they vary from quite, muted, simple pieces to louder, unmelodic works with some electronics, computer or one track, Fergusson tapping a wood block added, through to works scored in a dissonant, unmelodic manner that I struggle to connect with. There are however, some really nice pieces amongst this collection. As nineteen tracks all squeeze onto the one disc however they are all relatively brief, with a couple of touching eight minutes and everything else shorter, with one or two even measured in seconds rather than minutes. Looking down the list of composers names, I am also embarrassed to note that I only know three of them, and so we enter that same area of delightful non-expectation that I experienced at the Huddersfield Festival last weekend. Maybe it is just a case of me playing safe, or perhaps more likely a reflection of my tastes, but some of my favourite tracks here are by composers I know- the quiet, simple run through what sounds to me like a quirky scales system by John Lely is quite charming in its simplicity and refinement, reminding me somewhat of Tim Parkinson’s work maybe, and Jürg Frey’s Un champ de tendresse parsemé d’adieux (3) seems to have an even simpler structure as little sections rise in pitch through little stuttering bursts and softer, gentle tones. The Frey piece stands out for me here. It has a sense of completeness to it, a finished watercolour rather than an oil painting, but still something more than the pencil sketches that many of the pieces here remind me of. It is also easily the most aesthetically beautiful work in this collection, in my opinion at least.

I tend then to be attracted most to either the pieces here that attract my taste in quietness and softer dynamics more, or set the trumpet against other external sounds. A few of the pieces here see Altoft use electronics or computer generated parts. The most interesting may be Anne Le Berge’s Away, which features a female voice reciting a text, perhaps a poem briefly before a slow In a Silent Way-esque trumpet drifts softly over what I think are layered sheets of laptop processed trumpet tones. The piece is quite lovely and I found myself wanting to hear more than the less than five minutes we get here. Live electronics can be heard elsewhere, maybe the most appealing being on Chris Bryan’s Dialogue, in which searching spare trumpet seems to connect somehow with shimmering electronic tones and some spluttering buzzes that come and go in an almost improvisatory manner. How this piece was generated, I am not sure. It sounds like a duo improv piece but clearly a composer is listed so its hard to now how it was made.

Overall there is music on this album that I struggle to connect with, and other parts I enjoy a lot. My personal taste wants an album with less, but longer tracks by the composers I enjoy, but its also nice to be challenged. Some of the pieces here though feel like random streams of notes that I just cannot pull together in my head as anything connected and structured. I wonder if the fact that the nineteen division tuning meant that many of the composers here wrote more with this in mind, and perhaps the need to produce music that works well regardless of this element became overlooked a little, or is it just that I am incapable of connecting with these pieces? Compositions like Michael H. Dixon’s A Hundred Valleys just feel like a stream of barely connected notes to me. There isn’t really a melody in there and I find little of beauty. I am guessing however that this is probably a very clever work that took a lot of skill to perform, but as I said early on here, the technical issues connected with the unusual tuning system are largely lost on me. An interesting album then, that really had me straining my ears in places to make as much sense of it all as I could. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has heard tho sone and if they take more from it than I do, help me out a little with what I am missing.

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