Punters at Café Oto will tell you that the beloved Dalston art pit sells a variety of craft beers. To my knowledge, none of them are made with singing yeasts. Next month, that might change.
The centrepiece of this month’s Kammer Klang activities at Oto are the Living Instruments – “musical instruments based on microorganisms, built by a team including classically trained musicians and professional and hobbyist scientists” – which are making their British debut following their world debut at Le Bourg, Lausanne and an appearance in Darmstadt at the 2016 International Summer Course for New Music. Initiated by Swiss DIY-biology open lab Hackuarium as a low-tech, low-cost, open source interdisciplinary research project, they’re being presented and performed by the Swiss-Anglo ensemble We Spoke, who’ll be triggering the lifeforms and interpreting their output.
Both ensemble and organisms are taking up residence at Café Oto for five days, incorporating a public exhibition, a two-day composer’s workship culminating in a free performance, and a headlining slot on the April Kammer Klang bill. Here’s more on the science and method behind the project:
“Performers will stimulate fermentation bubbles, paramecia, moss, visualised radioactive traces and other curiosities of nature, their activity and data converted into sound via sensors. The nature of the instruments allows the performers to engage with them interactively, and the cyclic behaviour of the living objects is reflected musically in rich grooves and rhythmic patterns.”
Control devices featured include the Mossphone (which monitors the physical reactions of moss when it’s touched, and interprets them as analogues to “singing, snarling, murmuring or growling”), the yeast-driven Bubble Organ, the bacteriological marshal-and-track Paramecia Controller and the iPadPix app (part Geiger counter, part cloud chamber, part drum machine), in conjunction with the Virtual Soprano instrument controller (which translates facial movements into music). Some of the chemical and biological actions will be projected onto screens as a visual accompaniment.
The Living Instruments in action
The composer’s workshop (with ten places available to those who can send a CV and a couple of sentences outlining their interest in the project) gives composers a crash-course in the workings of the organisms and their control devices, plus the opportunity to compose and fine tune a piece using the control software, to be presented to the public on the Monday night concert.
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Also playing at Kammer Klang are twentieth/twenty-first century classical specialists Explore Ensemble, made up of soloists associated with the Royal College of Music. They’ll be playing two pieces: both of them by composers whose lives were unfairly cut short, and both of whom were associated with the evolving-timbre-over-time school of spectral music.
The first of these is ‘Talea’, a 1986 piece by spectral pioneer Gérard Grisey. Here’s something on the piece from ‘The Strad‘s Bruce Hodges, taken from a description of a performance by the Talea Ensemble:
“In Latin, “talea” means “cutting,” and in Gérard Grisey’s ‘Talea’, an initial idea is gradually excised—elements removed and others taking their place. In two parts played without pause, the work is intended to — in the composer’s words — “express two aspects or, more precisely, two auditory angles of a single phenomenon.” But his concise description feels inadequate to describe the experience of hearing the score. ‘Talea’s power comes from its examination and illumination of an overtone cycle, a phenomenon integral to Grisey’s output (and spectral music in general).
“Somehow when one hears the ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano) illuminating Grisey’s argument, it feels like being exposed to one of life’s basic building blocks—like grasping at DNA and holding it in your hands. The five players alternate between moments of great ferocity (especially in the piano), and those of eerie quietude — at times almost as if everything has been shut down completely; at others, sounds emerge like soft groans from the earth itself. The timbres float, hover, barge into your brain, recede, reform themselves, take you hostage. As the scurrying of the first part calms down in the second, the waters reform, interrupted by various phenomena, until a kind of miraculous climax occurs near the end. Bit by bit, the violinist states the overtone scale with a thrilling baldness—as if everything previously had been building toward this moment—before the violinist repeats the scale again, and this time the sequence is abruptly cut off.”
The second piece is ‘Domeniche alla periferia dell’impero’, composed by Fausto Romitelli (a student of Grisey’s who took strong inspiration from both him). The piece – the second section of which is dedicated to Grisey and his fellow Spectralist Hugues Dufourt – was worked out in various versions between 1996 and 2000 prior to Romitelli’s untimely death from cancer. Again, I’ve lifted a little text from the Talea Ensemble pages to illustrate the nature of his work:
“Romitelli’s music is a collage of styles that defy classification; his work drawing from all corners and incorporating timbres associated with psychedelic rock music and spectral harmony. From screaming electric guitar and electronics to sensual textures, his music is fresh and innovative in the contemporary canon. At times, his hellish sound-world evokes nightmarish and hallucinatory qualities that inspire a visceral listening experience.”
The composer himself once laid his methods out as follows: “At the centre of my composing lies the idea of considering sound as a material into which one plunges in order to forge its physical and perceptive characteristics: grain, thickness, porosity, luminosity, density and elasticity. Hence it is sculpture of sound, instrumental synthesis, anamorphosis, transformation of the spectral morphology, and a constant drift towards unsustainable densities, distortions and interferences, thanks also to the assistance of electro-acoustic technologies. And increasing importance is given to the sonorities of non-academic derivation and to the sullied, violent sound of a prevalently metallic origin of certain rock and techno music.”
Examples of both pieces below, plus excerpts of Explore Ensemble performing another Romitelli piece, ‘Professor Bad Trip’:
This month’s Fresh Klang item is provided by London-based percussionist Wai-Nok Angela Hui, one of the percussion finalists in the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010 and a performer with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as well as a soloist and chamber musician. She searches for the unexplored possibilities between classical music, musical theatre and art, and collaborates with artists, poets and painters, incorporating a multitude of instruments and styles.
She’ll be performing ‘Aphasia’ by Mark Applebaum– a demanding physical/philosophical performance piece written for hand gestures synchronised to pre-recorded sound. (The latter is based on thousands of edited and transformed vocal samples originated by baritone Nicholas Isherwood, from sung notes, musical phrases and intoned numbers in a variety of language through to drones, lip smacks and hiccups). Here’s an excerpt from Camille Brown’s ‘Stanford Report’ essay on the original work, plus a video of Applebaum himself performing it.
“While the piece was inspired by a conversation between Isherwood and Applebaum, the idea to write a piece for a mute singer with hand motions was Applebaum’s own “obsession.” His intention was to have Aphasia come across as a metaphor for “expressive paralysis,” something that unnerves him every time he “confronts the terror of composing a new piece.” So how does one go about the paradox of writing a composition for a performance that has no form of verbal communication or written words?
“Applebaum began by collaborating with Isherwood to produce the sounds, a collection of three hours of Isherwood singing. The singing consisted of “a bunch of crazy sounds – very strange things I asked of him.” From there Applebaum isolated individual samples and transformed his selections radically through computer processes. The result, he said, “was a garbled voice of sorts.” Applebaum then choreographed “a kind of invented nonsense sign language” to accompany the now otherworldly sound sequence. Based on everyday activities, the gestures were recorded as a written musical score, using icons with names such as “give me the money” and “Post-it Notes.”
“These gestures, each of which are described in detail in the work’s appendix, are intended to reflect the composer’s fascination in “absurdity that seems to be the consequence of tedious, obsessive attention to ridiculous things.” Or, in other words, how bizarre the actions of our mundane routine of activity seem when they are examined out of context… The fast-paced and unexpected nature of Aphasia in performance that gives it charm and broad appeal. Since the piece is so far removed from what is recognized as common musical practice, it is equally accessible to music experts and novice listeners alike. As Applebaum points out, “Kids love it. So do people who need a break from conventional modes of expression.”
This months’ Kammer Klang DJ set is provided by Neu Records, an independent label which, last year, released We Spoke’s album ‘Different Beat’ (featuring the music of Fritz Hauser). Based in Barcelona, the label is devoted to recording contemporary music in surround and 3D formats, as well as providing a platform for interaction between international composers and performers of the highest level.
Fresh Klang: Mark Applebaum – Aphasia (performed by Wai-Nok Angela Hui)
Explore Ensemble performs:
Gérard Grisey – Talea (for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and piano) (performed by Explore Ensemble)
Fausto Romitelli – Domeniche alla periferia dell’impero (for four instruments) (performed by Explore Ensemble)
Living Instruments (UK premiere – presented and performed by We Spoke Ensemble & Hackuarium)
DJs: Neu Records
- Living Instruments Composers’ Workshop – Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England, Friday 31st March 2017, 12.00pm-7.00pm & Monday 3rd April 2017, 12.00pm-7.00pm – information here and here
- Living Instruments Exhibition – Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England, Saturday 1st April 2017, 11.00am-8.00pm – information here and here
- Living Instruments free performance (featuring outcomes of Composers’ Workshop) – Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England, Monday 3rd April 2017, 8.00pm – information here and here
- Kammer Klang (We Spoke & Living Instruments + Explore Ensemble + Wai-Nok Angela Hui)- Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England, Tuesday 4th April 2017, 7.30pm – information here and here