Tag Archives: Los Angeles

More British concerts, first week of November (2nd-8th) – Illuminations London present Holly Herndon/Jam City/Claire Tolan in Bethnal Green and Josh T. Pearson/Richard Dawson/Briana Marela/Let’s Eat Grandma in Hackney; Laura Moody plays solo in Cardiff and Sheffield; Jenny Hval/Briana Marela tour the UK

2 Nov

Some more concert dates for the current week. If you’re thinking that these have a definite female slant to them, you’re right. I’m indulging my latent X as well as stretching my perspective.

Holly Herndon expanded A/V show (featuring Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self) + Jam City + Claire Tolan (Barbican & Rockfeedback present Illuminations  @ Oval Space, 29-32 The Oval, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9DT, UK, Wednesday 4th November 2015, 7:30pm) – £15.00

Having already made a showing at Liverpool and Bristol during October, peripatetic techno-pop/IDM composer Holly Herndon brings her expanded show to London. This is a full multi-media experience including the usual music, visuals and dance elements but with an interactive component that goes far beyond Holly’s onstage collaborations with programmer/life partner Mat Dryhurst and with interpretative dancer/additional singer Colin Self. In particular, Mat’s adaptive and conceptual SAGA software reaches out beyond the stage to work – consensually – with the audience members’ own browser histories and Facebook content; mixing it all into the visuals (and, potentially, the sounds) as a communal mashup, both representational and communicatory.

Intriguing as this factor is, it’s an adjunct to Holly’s music; which remains the core material of the show. Continually glitched, tweaked and deconstructed, her compositions are a cool, complex, thoughtful and exhilarating mixture. They’re informed by post-classical forms, dance techno, and anthemic synth pop; they utilize experimental textures and broad vocal stylings (from standard singing to semi-voluntary sounds) and they bury philosophical queries deep within their tunes. Holly’s soundwork is as immersive as her stagings, full of implied questions and reflections regarding our access to and immersion in technology and how this affects the way in which we think and express ourselves, leaving comet-trails of information, interaction and yearnings.

All of these additional subtexts and pointers are there if you want them, but Holly is first and foremost a communicating musician, and her pieces are as melodious and accessible as they are multi-layered. Drawing on her ongoing music studies (doctorate level at Stanford) , her time as a precocious and enquiring teenager steeped in the heat and fun of the Berlin club scene, and her work with everything from choirs to customised laptop software, they sometimes sound like particularly complicated pop songs, stuttering their way through myriad changes of attention and focus. Sometimes they sound like accelerated dream-state dances; sometimes like madrigals sung during earthquakes (see Unequal, below). At other times, they’re like the chatter of path-switching in a circuit; or like carefully-directed cultural channel-surfings which quick-step deftly back and forth across a breadth of urban art and experience (from grand opera house to downloads in cramped bedsits). Brain food which encourages you to wander.

Also on the bill are Jam City and Claire Tolan, both of whom share Holly’s interest in interactions and in the results of our being embedded within a dense informational culture, although each has their own way of approaching the situation.

Jam City is the alias of dance-electronica producer and deconstructionist Jack Latham. Though Jack’s background in fashion and “corporate espionage” sounds almost too good to be true, as if it’s been dream-tailored for counter-cultural media discussions and for high-end elitist posing, he doesn’t use it that way. As a musician, he’s evolved from collaging various dubstep tropes towards using his work to develop and express questioning, outright political critiques of neoliberal capitalism (such as the Unhappy single, which explores the dulled angst of online porn consumers while juxtaposing it with riot footage). In the process, Jack’s also developed as a performer – backgrounding the laptops and the passive role of the standard electronica performer in order to retake the stage as guitarist and singer, and delivering a new phase of material described as sounding like a Prince record constructed from cold, chunky industrial sounds”.

Claire Tolan is an artist, programmer, sampler, writer and soundscaper specializing in autonomous sensory meridian r – a psychological process in which carefully-arranged sound and speech – usually a blend of themed, targeted whispers and quiet diegetic noises (scratches, scuffs, intimate room sounds) – triggers euphoric physical and mental reactions in the listener. With sharp wit, Claire links all of this to new developments in programming and acoustic surveillance technologies, exploring the question of how it might be applied: from simple mood enhancements and healing systems through to neurolinguistics and perception and to the potential manipulation and control of people. Her recent Holly Herndon collaboration Lonely At The Top (see below) might give some clues as to her concert performance. A cosseting monologue, coffee-pot dribbles and the close-up noises of small rooms are interspersed with the rubs and slaps of massage, fingernails ticking on keyboards and screens, and increasingly intimate sounds of hand and mouth: the language, desires and end results of relaxation tapes, executive relief, socially-reinforced senses of entitlement and prostitution blend and overlap to sardonic, disturbing effect.

Information and tickets for the concert are here  while the Facebook event page is here. At the end of the month, Holly will also be appearing at All Tomorrow’s Parties at Prestatyn.

* * * * * * * *

There are some similarities between Holly Herndon and Laura Moody  – not least an overlap with classical music and a sense of being on the outcrops of songcraft, delving up malleable truths and questions. Yet whereas Holly’s a post-classical theoretician (reconciling her education with her human instincts, and with life outside the college bubble) and works primarily on computer, Laura comes from older and more familiar traditions, and is almost exclusively an acoustic performer. Possessing outstanding talent both as a singer and as a cellist – and able to cover both fields simultaneously, as well as beatboxing and cello-drumming – she pounces into her own music with the terrifying, exhilarating technical skills of a top-drawer classical soloist.

Laura’s songwriting instinct, meanwhile, seem to come from multiple directions at once. Tense twentieth-century string figures (from her earlier years playing avant-garde pieces with the Meredith Monk Ensemble, and her current work with the Elysian Quartet); ancient, eerie folk airs; expressionist opera; P.J. Harvey’s cleaver intensity; the clever, idiosyncratic and individual art pop of a Kate Bush, a Tom Waits or a Bjork. Everything that she delivers sounds immediate, whether it’s the savagely equivocal hormonal take-down of an older man on Creeping Alopecia, the raindrop attenuations of Call This Time Love, or the stormy dissections of love-gone-wrong and betrayal on Turn Away and We Are Waiting.

The live gigs are enthralling wonders: supple switchings between Laura’s own welcoming personality and the performance persona which handles the songs, blurring the line of physicality which separates woman and cello. She’s out on a brief tour now, playing outside London for a few events. Go see for yourselves.

Laura Moody:

* * * * * * * *

For many female pop musicians, an increasingly outright or explicit public sexuality is both a marketing point and the prime hook. To an extent, this is also true of Jenny Hval. Many people will have initially heard about her thanks to what seemed to be a head-turningly saucy lyric:“I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris.” Curious (and possibly a little numbed by Rihanna, plus memories of lubricious Prince party-funk), many of us will have followed this expecting a licentious slow jam, only to find something very different – the opening line of a mirror-calm songscape of hovering bells, limpid murmurs and breathed-on acoustic guitars which dealt with the secret worlds of strangers within cities and, in particular, their self-reliance.

A polymath whose methods blur as artfully as her perspectives, Jenny doesn’t write songs so much as drop carefully-charged texts and pointers, and then explore and adorn these recitatives with chantlike melodies and poised minimal instrumental textures, pulling them apart and working in and out of the word-rhythms. Her guitars, keyboards and samplers (as well as her heavy-lashed, light-tongued vocals) work like soft-edged sculpting tools. Her lyrics are the lines of resistance.

For both new listeners and previous converts, sexuality remains a prime Hval hook. It’s what we expect to hear from her, although we’ve quickly learnt to appreciate that she turns the expected approaches on their heads and back-to-front. She revels in the unfixed: in the course of a single song, lovers will pass fluidly from mysterious passion to friendship to absence, and between gender, ages, species or state. Even when singing of cupping her own cunt (while cupping the blunt, unadorned and troublesome word itself, delivered throughout her songbook without a hint of shame, taboo or aggression and with a succinct matter-of-fact poise) she’ll let the action lead her somewhere that doesn’t fit the usual expectations and commodities – appreciating its centrality at her body’s core; being inspired to cup in turn a lover’s “soft dick… accepting restlessness, accepting no direction, accepting this fearful wanting that isn’t desire… can we just lie here being?”; or imagining a world of peaceful masturbators (“a million bedrooms with hands softly lulling… without telling anyone, a million ships come alone out on the calmest seas”) while asking, with a sense of disquiet “are we loving ourselves now? Are we mothering ourselves?”

Also running through Jenny’s work (whether entwined with or separate from the sexual themes), are ambiguous accounts of bodily disintegration. Opening her second album ‘Innocence Is Kinky’ with an account of watching online porn, she moves from commodified enervation into an eerie and exultant dream of escape, relinquishing her own body and its passive needs, and finally symbolically destroying the eyes with which she consumes the images. Yet this song and its sisters aren’t quite nightmares. Sometimes they’re triumphs – disassociative fantasies of freedom in which the wrack and ruin seem to be the natural rites of passage of a cool mind walking free, unconcerned, its passions become processes.

Jenny’s writing casts a wide net – violent upsets echoing classic French surrealism; deep-running strands of myth both classical and original (from the “Oslo Oedipus” of Innocence Is Kinky to the dark, quasi-pagan tree-figure in Amphibious, Androgynous that stands as lover, doppelganger and the next phase of self); and musings on the ambiguous trap of language (“the tongue is upon for the restless /An indecipherable alphabet / Each word an island less… And we speak in tongues from part to parts, broke all to parts / From invisible state, to invisible state…”). Most recently, on her latest album ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ the political subtexts have broken cover to become direct challenges (“You say I’m free now, that battle is over, / and feminism is over and socialism’s over. / Yeah, I say, I can consume what I want now..”). So too have preoccupations with ageing and survival (in the breathless narrative of Heaven, surrounded by loops and fractures of cemeteries and childhood choirs, Jenny wrestles with the pull of memory and the drag of mortality) and a increasingly solid approach to identity. “What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market? Realizing your potential? Being healthy, being clean, not making a fool of yourself, not hurting yourself? Shaving in all the right places?”

All of the above – the obliqueness and the rapier hits – makes listening to Jenny’s records akin to haunting her apartment at 2am (or some similar time  when manners and manneredness come unstuck and the shapes of other truths come walking). I’ve not been fortunate enough to see what her music is like live – though I know that past concert showings have seen her play bolstered with  guests or simply alone, surrounded by laptops, devices and ideas. On the five quick dates of her current UK tour, you’ll be able to see for yourselves.

Jenny Hval:

* * * * * * * * *

On the Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol dates, Jenny will be joined by her on-off tourmate Briana Marela, a singer-songwriter from the Pacific North-West who’s currently working a string of European tour dates in support of her second album ‘All Around Us’. As you might expect from something recorded in Iceland and co-produced with Sigur Rós associate Alex Somers, ‘All Around Us’ is ghosted and garnished with touches of Hopelandic enchantment (with beautiful smeared, paper-thin sounds intruding on the edge of the mix, like lost amnesiac ghosts or distant pipes), but it’s very much Briana’s inspiration – a luminous, thoughtful work blending layered melodic sample-patches and banking her petal-delicate vocals into choirs and a capella counterpoint.

Though Briana cites Björk, Laura Veirs, Vashti Bunyan and Meredith Monk as influences (she has something in common with Laura Moody, then), I can also hear the same kind of all-round sound-mastery that’s on display and working away in the songs of Imogen Heap; deep-level sonic exploration and sound curation tied to the urge to tell you a story and sing you a straight earworm. In the album’s lead single Surrender I can even hear something of the pure pop of ABBA, while the midnight lushness of the follow-up, Dani, recalls a Julee Cruise ‘Twin Peaks’ ballad.

Though Briana’s voice is soft, it’s never wispy – never insubstantial. If there’s a hint of girl-next-door to what she does, she’s the quiet, observant girl full of thoughts, going her own way but ready to let you walk alongside.  Like Jenny, though less explicitly, she explores possibilities of intimacy. Her songs hover carefully on the borderline between selfhood and loneliness, a delicate staking out of possible togetherness, subtly resisting the pressures to put out or submit, to be deformed by needs and expectations (“What does love mean in this day and age? /  To me it’s a moment where we resonate at two frequencies close in phase… /  It’s not a competition /  Everyone has music within them.” ). Meanwhile, the perfectly-pitched American-visionary tone of the album (its hallucinatory fairy-tale sonics, leaflike piano falls and misty country swells) suggests that there’s common ground between Briana’s dream pop and the ostensibly cleaner work of breakthrough CCM-pop singers like Lexi Elisha, which in turn suggests that there’ll be a lot of people who’ll end up liking this.

* * * * * * * *

In between dates with Jenny Hval, Briana Marela will also be joining the bill at another Illuminations concert in London, this one a stew of assorted flavours which also includes the battered Americana of Lift To Experience frontman Josh T. Pearson  and the skewed Tyneside noise-troubadour work of Richard Dawson.

Probably because of the female orientation of this particular post, I’ve got to admit that I’m more intrigued by the youngest act on the bill, and the only other female one. It’s difficult to work out just how tongue-in-cheek the psychedelic rag-doll sludge-pop” duo Let’s Eat Grandma are, assuming that they’re joking at all. Eyes down, singing from beneath and behind tumbling pre-Raphaelite locks, and tucked into stolen Stevie Nicks dresses, Rosa and Jenny rummage with various instruments like toybox-divers and play songs as if it’s only occurred to them to do so. Two Norwich teenagers who’ve known each other since childhood, they’ve sustained, into near adulthood, that mysterious blankness of two little girls who are ignoring your interruptions to their game. The songs themselves are tangled musical fairy stories, or (as with ‘Eat Shiitake Mushrooms Into Chocolate Sludge Cake’) extended wooden-legged instrumental mantras owing more to Faust or Beefheart: spontaneous-seeming, utterly absorbed in themselves. The band feels like a musical chrysalis twitching what might become an astounding breadth of wing. It’s all to discover.

Josh T. Pearson/Richard Dawson/Briana Marela/Let’s Eat Grandma (Rockfeedback present Illuminations @ St. John Church at Hackney, Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, London, E5 0PD, UK, Saturday 7th November 2015, 6.00pm) – £20.00 –  informationtickets

* * * * * * * *

More concert previews coming shortly for November…

Jim Lampi plays in London: Balham tonight, Putney at the end of the month

15 Jun

A quick note, since this is at very short notice. Jim Lampi, singer-songwriter and arguably the world’s best Chapman Stick player, is surfacing for two rare gigs in London this month… one of them tonight. Jim Lampi The Chapman Stick is often known as a technician’s instrument – studied polyphony, smooth jazz, fingertapping extravaganzas. While Jim’s more than capable of all that there’s also a rootsy joy to his musicality, born from curiosity, a subtle musical restlessness and a diverse if low-key career. He’s played with people as diverse as Michael Manring, Courtney Pine and in particular the late John Martyn, for whom he was an occasional bandmember. The latter looms large in Jim’s own recent songwriting, which is full of dreamy slurs and elastic timing and sung in a weathered voice that’s part Martyn and part Leon Redbone. Watching him play, even in short bursts, is a joyous experience.

Live @ The Bedford, The Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill, Balham, SW12 9HD – Monday 15th June – 8.00pm, free event.

Jim plays at the resident singer-songwriter night, alongside three other singer-songwriters: Brendan Cleary, Josh McCartney and Robert Kennedy – full details here.

The Half Moon, 93 Lower Richmond Road, Putney, London, SW15 1EU, UK, Monday 29th June – 8.00pm, £8.00-£10.00.

Jim plays a support slot for the acclaimed John Martyn tribute band The Glorious Fools. More details here, and get tickets here.

REVIEW – January 2015 singles, part 3 – Hypenkrünk, Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, Grayhound O.C.D., danny0, Sea Change

16 Feb

I finished with a sex rap last time, and I’m picking up with another one now, although the rich fantastical swirl which Appalachian crew Hypenkrünk indulge on ‘Clitmatist’ lies far over the mountains from Ardamus’ down-to-earth D.C.-based romantic farces. Forty years in, one of the joys of hip hop’s current universality is that anyone can wallow in its rich sea of roleplay. In this case, stocky thirtysomething white guys from Tennessee who look like pro wrestlers get to pose as love gods. “Keeping it real” was always a wobbly concept for hip-hop: let’s just go with the dance of masks for a moment.

We’ve had dirty South for a while. This is mountain-man smut, with a swirl of German oscillators. For much of the ‘Clitmatist’ video, rapper Realtree (pallid stony-faced expression, magician’s robe, and whiskers that are part kung-fu-villain and part backwoods outlaw) lovingly serenades an only-just-offscreen vulva. He’s armed with ouija board, hypnotist’s watch, and a lubriciously loaded tongue. Explicit promises roll off the latter in a drench of hip hop wordplay (“Stow that hidden treasure packed away upon a shelf / You could never reach it – I think that I can help… / I would have brought some flowers but I’m here to smell yours,”) and down-home Southern innuendo. The words crawl over a billowing duvet of mongrelised electronica: some whining G-funk synth, Hawkwind gizmo dabbles and an undulating mattress of Berlin School sequencer. A discreet psychedelic guitar glints and swells as part of the ensemble. While nobody’s looking it sneaks out a sitar impression, as if furnishing a ‘70s-themed shag-pad.

In between glimpses of Realtree’s cartoon crib, stoned shots of trees claw the sky. A second Hypenkrünker shows up as a Charon figure. As fat, bald and impassive as a Turkish masseur in a peep-show (and poling his punt down a misty vagina-pink Styx), he’s a living “man-in-the-boat” gag who, at one point, shares a raunchy topless man-massage with Realtree. The Hypenkrünk PR promises essay on duality, alternate worlds, evolved consciousness and animal nature, and the lyrics drop references to stargazing and meditating as well as mystic rides; but right now our potential guru (when not rhyming “Kundalini” with “bikini”) seems more concerned with urging his date to “spread it like a flying squirrel.”

OK, you’re probably snorting your drink out of your nose by now. All of this is a joke, at least on one level. The players are moonshiners and moonlighters, coming in from assorted east Tennessee electronica, prog and psychedelic projects as well as from hip hop; while both in and out of the video, there’s a tinge of good-natured, low-budget, storytelling porn (tacky costumes, audience complicity, and all). But even as they rip the piss out of slutty-Romeo raps, whacking-material traditions and cosmic posturing in sound and vision alike, (“I am the saviour / of your l-l-labia – / I’m gonna see you on your worst behaviour, freaky neighbour,”) there’s an authentic tang to both Hypenkrünk’s trippy vapours and their juicier ends. As a self-styled master of sex Realtree’s clearly devoted to the task – from end to end, the song’s entirely and exclusively about serving female pleasure – and as musicians Hypenkrünk sink themselves deeply, devotedly into every genre they love and pillage. Filthy, sweaty, trippy, and even tender… at least, this time round.

* * * *

Conversely, it’s the last time around for Derbyshire alt.pop brothers Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, but on their final single they’re speaking up for the bemused and frightened beast in people. Initially, ‘Burrow’ comes across like The Walker Brothers heard through a static storm, or like Phil Spector hauling My Bloody Valentine back into the ‘60s. Drums boom like warehouse crates, tubular bells are smacked: a cavernous crooning blur of backing vocals rides the swagger and swells like a sailor’s choir, while guitars shrug off a gluey sonic trail and a slow low-tide lick of quiet frying noise. Kelly Dyson’s vocals are nasal and poppy, while the words they’re singing are pitched between nightmare and compassion – “The weight of fears above the burrow, / of teeth and fur and blood / I clear my throat at a circle of sky / from the back of the hole I dug.”

It’s a singalong rabbit siege; a fatalistic, cowering gnash back at life’s terrors, a last burst of resistance before fate takes shape and takes hold. (“Maybe I’ll bolt out into the snare / from the back of the hole I dug. / And feel the cold metal wire tear / at the fur and skin and sinew around my throat.”) You can’t help thinking that the latterday Scott Walker, looking back over his own post-crooner gnarls of cruelties and complications, would tip his baseball cap in approval at the Low Low efforts, as well as the way they interweave animal behaviour and human anxieties. “I’ll lay and watch the long migrations / and envy the southward bound formations. /All the world performs the same motions / as I choke and wretch and spit and curse at my complications.” After the recording sessions were over, one of the Dysons immediately quit the band and Derbyshire, and lit out for London. Presumably he ducked the snare. Let’s hope he escapes the city predators.

The B-side, ‘Stop Spinning the Birdcage’ drops the fuzz drapes and the timpani booms for a brace of acoustic guitars and syrupy West Coast harmonies. Until banjo, bass and noisy lead guitar (all squeak and corrosion) work their way in (gradually sickening and splintering the song into disorientation) it sounds like an unplugged Byrds on the cusp of psychedelia, with the voices keeping their candy throughout. From the start, though, sunny, stoned-love-song intentions are hijacked by morbid distractions – “butterflies all around her eyes / I wonder when she makes up her eyes / if she draws blood?” – and its lazy and blissful carnality ends up hopelessly confused (“My eyes are carnivores / I’m thinking which bit of her face I should have first. / Little mouth or little nose? / I wonder, should I kiss it / or should I eat it whole?”).

Yet there’s no malice, no self-conscious weirdness to it: While a songwriter like Momus would have had a detailed and literate field day with this kind of polymorphous perversity, the Dysons are content to leave it as a passing blip. A sprained acid hiccup on a day for canoodling, a momentary surfacing of something more animal. A good, ever-so-slightly provocative note to go out on.

* * * *

There are no such peculiar moments (or quivering perspectives) with Grayhound O.C.D., despite their goofy name. They play straight modern rock throughout: the U2 root-note pulse in the bass, the sugar-frosted piano picking its way lightly through the chords, the choral synths. The guitars have that caressing thresh we know from Coldplay – gauze-wrapped shoegaze thunder, honed down from trance-inducer to aural duvet. Frontman Gray calls his girlfriend a “shining star” and – in the video – loiters theatrically at the tops of castles and by the side of lakes, staring meaningfully at imaginary horizons like a Thor-bearded Bono-in-waiting. He seems oblivious to the fact that the weather has seriously let him down (staying resolutely nice and clear when it could have had the decency to whip up a quick squall or dramatic cloud) or that maybe there’s another tour party waiting to squeeze past on the battlements.

In other words, everything’s in place but the actual drama, underlining how contrived and calculated the band are. I let Hypenkrünk off their own contrivances, thanks to their wit: I’m less inclined to do the same for a band apparently poised to snatch up any tour or festival gaps left by touring Anglophone acts. Yet for three minutes they almost have me. Maybe Gray wins his day pass simply because it makes a change to hear an inflated arena-rock package with a soft-sung German accent rather than a simpering high-volume falsetto. Maybe it’s the superb, sensual production that buffs everything up to the glossy, summer-storm sheen of mid-‘80s Simple Minds (a sound I’ve always loved, even when the mighty winds curdle to warmed-over gassiness). Perhaps its the simple pleasure to be had by hearing assured musicians hit their mark and keep the rhythm bounding – a perpetual mid-air freeze-frame.

I also suspect that none of my skepticism is going to stop boys from Hamburg to Vienna snogging their girlfriends to this one from now till early summer. They’ll probably also be breaking up and making up to the B-side, Alone – its dark-toned modal guitar figure offering a bit more of the meat and sours. Still, it’s not long before Gray is pledging to plunge into deepest seas and climb highest mountains. Pass, pal.

* * * *

Even while he’s working on bright young Los Angeles neo-soul with Idesia, or dipping into African fusion pop with Izinde, bass playing producer Daniel Oldham carries around a pocketful of other projects. When he’s nurturing his dance svengali side, he’s danny0, with a debut single pursuing a darker, more twisted side… or so he says. It’s co-written and sung (with poise and operatic smoulder) by Anna Delaria of Anna & The Static, who – like Daniel – seems to be looking for the diva-frowns and broody depths that her day band doesn’t seem to offer.

It’s almost a pity that ‘Fire’ is so cute – a slinky haunch of electronic R’n’B hanging from a fingersnap and great stomping blocks of fuzzy synthesizer. There are probably too many songs with that particular title (a magnet for posturing and duff lyrics). True to form, some of the words here wobble as Daniel and Anna toy with images of flames, menace and insouciance, some of which slip through their fingers. Anna, however, never loses her step. Strutting and ducking through the keyboard slams, she sells the song like a haughty Liza Minnelli.

Daniel’s production seals the deal. He seems eager to confess a debt to Rich Costey and Kimbra, but in truth this is his own beast, full of glowing slithering detail, ghost-orchestra arabesques and some subtle rug-pulling. Like the massive pixellated orange explosions in old video games, two-dimensional blossoms of blurred expansive sound belly out in great fan-dancing puffs, covering up a few shortcoming as they go. ‘Fire’ isn’t perfect, but as Anna rides it around the dance floor on its fat hairy tentacles, trailing a veil of flickering embers, you could easily forget that it isn’t.

* * * *

Even on her singles, Ellen Sunde (a.k.a. Sea Change) doesn’t showboat or swagger. Instead, she deliquesces. The blooping bedroom-pop of ‘Squares’ is both epic and introverted – a small constellation of freezing glows and vapours and the impatient blat of cheap drum programmes, with her small, sighing sob of a voice nestled at the heart of it, a warm breath on ice slurs.

In some respects Ellen resembles her fellow Norwegian, Anja Garbarek, working within a modest, birdlike sound and a haunted sketchbook, grappling with ghostly nervy ideas. In other respects, she’s whittled down the ideas of Kate Bush’s jarring, demonic ‘Get Out Of My House’ from primal screams to a flinching dodge. You could call it dream pop if it wasn’t so wide awake and bug-eyed. Far from heavy-lidded narcosis, this is dream-sharpened wakefulness and sometimes it hurts.

‘Squares’ is neurotic, fearful and ultimately brave. At times it sounds like an existential crisis wrapped in fairy lights (“just go inside, oh just go inside me / There’s no-one here”), but it’s mostly a crisis of confidence (“If I go there with you I will not be safe / All that lives inside me, all that you can see./ If you knew what I was – a frozen me, / what grows inside me – / then you’d let it go.”) Batting aside help, Ellen’s her own haunted house, her own jailor. Also, it seems, she’s her own salvation, instinctive and unpredictable, ready to burst shackles and flee without plans. “So don’t look back, don’t look back. / Out of this place, out of this house – / ‘cos if I don’t go there, / oh then my feet run, my feet will bring me there / My feet will run all they can.”

Trying to grasp at the song seems to melt it – it won’t keep a solid shape, it won’t provide a firm conclusion. Is this about self-hatred or about fervid, elusive independence? Resolving one’s own terrors, or bolting from them by panic and chance? “Save yourself first,” advises Ellen, towards the end of the song. She could be addressing a loved one, or herself: it could be nobility, or a covert brush-off. Sea Change offers transformation of circumstance and state, but also a fluttering ambiguity. Nothing is mapped out. I’m alarmed. I’m fascinated.

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’
El Deth Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 28th January 2015)

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’
Audio Antihero/Other Electricities (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only pay-what-you-like single (released 26th January 2015)

Grayhound O.C.D.: “And I Love You”
Khb Music/Timezone Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download single (released 16th January 2015)

danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria)
danny0 (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 27th January 2015)

Sea Changes: ‘Squares’
Sea Changes (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 20th??? January 2015)

Get them from:

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’ – stream from Bandcamp or YouTube, or download from Bandcamp, iTunes or Amazon as part of ‘Lords of Rap, Volume 1: Just Da Tip’ album.
Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’ – Bandcamp.
Grayhound O.C.D.: ‘And I Love You’ – iTunes or Amazon.
danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria) – stream-only via Soundcloud.
Sea Change: ‘Squares’ – stream-only via Soundcloud.

Hypenkrünk online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

Grayhound O.C.D. online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace YouTube

danny0 (Daniel Oldham) online:
HomepageSoundcloud

Sea Change online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

REVIEW – Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’ album, 2001 (“a leading light in bass clarinet”)

19 Sep
Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water'

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’

Blowing thick darkness, cheery reed-chatter and diva moans with equal facility, Marty Walker has earned himself a New Music name as a leading light in bass clarinet. Over eighty pieces by diverse composers have been written specifically for his particular gifts, and he’s effectively the in-house reedsman for many of the “California school” cadre of composers. For ‘Dancing On Water’ – his first release under his own name on Cold Blue Music – the California school returns the favours. Works from five of its members – the blissful voice-music of Daniel Lentz, the plotted-out ellipses of Michael Byron, Jim Fox’s expansive impressionism, Michael Jon Fink’s lonely, romantic grace-of-few-words and Peter Garland’s percussion-slanted Native American leanings – all juxtapose in different ways with different aspects of Marty’s interpretative approach.

On several of these pieces, Marty gets to stow away his bass clarinet (along with all of its invites to the New Music party) and bring his B-flat clarinet out from under its cousin’s shadow. The close-up duets of Peter Garland’s two-part Dancing On Water sets Walker down next to William Winant and David Johnson’s four-handed marimba. The music neatly folds Mexican folk melodies into minimalist discipline: the marimba clinks with sharp solemnity, both childlike and gamelan-esque. It’s a wily dance of toys, slicing the simple cadences up with unpredictable yet precise spaces. While the clarinet traces similar curves up through the arpeggios, Marty invests it with warmth plus infinitesmal bluesy slides and fades from small-group jazz: a wink in the midst of discipline. Moonlight is the meditation afterwards – a tremolo marimba twinkling like water underneath a much sleepier, dreamier clarinet, Marty coaxing utter expressiveness out of Garland’s clipped material.

Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water; (30-second excerpt)

On Daniel Lentz’s efflorescent Song(s) Of The Sirens, Marty’s ten overdubbed clarinets are matched by ten overdubbed pianos (played by Bryan Pezzone, another Cold Blue loyalist). But rather than being slaved to a rigid percussive regimentation, all twenty instruments are worked into Lentz’s familiar fascination with overlaid, overlapping vocal fragments. A sensuous undulation of slightly disfocussed pitches are linked by Pezzone’s summery, waterfalling spirals of virtuoso piano; a squadron of tiny icicles falling on the ear.

Amy Knoles’ sighing, narcotised voice (doppelgangered and folded into blurry harmonies and elisions, stacked like sated bodies) provides the siren’s role. This reaches us as a meandering stream of single spoken words – “lips”, “let”, “love”, “air”, “sweet”; “to”, “our”, “listen”, “touch”, “voices”, “you” – all of which are lifted and displaced from their sentences, suggesting an erotic, subliminal hypnosis. As digital manipulation slowly brings the intent into focus, full sentences and melodies coalesce from the haze. Marty’s role here, though, is simply as one (or ten) of the ensemble dreamers, voicing Lenz’s drowsy vision via the clarinet’s sleepy yawning tones. By the time of the stirring, ecstatic finale of piano rolls rumbling out of the trance, he’s not even there anymore.

Marty Walker: 'Songs(s) Of The Sirens; (30-second excerpt)

In the end, it remains the bass clarinet that provides the best bridge between Marty Walker and the composers who seek him out. It’s on that instrument that his expressiveness achieves its most fascinating levels. Certainly it’s fascinated Michael Byron, whose composition Elegant Detours has the most obsessive interest in Marty’s abilities. Byron, however, seems more interested in Marty Walker as a performance mechanism rather than as an emoter. Trapped inside an implied run up a three-octave whole-tone scale, Elegant Detours scurries in super-compressed bursts to explore the possible patterns available. A workout of bass clarinet extremes (from tiny puffs of air to sweeps across its whole range) it ends in lung-bustingly sustained wails knifing the attention to the wall, almost physically painful to listen to. Marty rises superbly to the technical challenge, but it’s frantically clinical. The music seems to feast on itself; like competitive weightlifting, or like laying bets on the frantic mice attempting to escape from a lab maze.

Marty Walker: 'Elegant Detours; (30-second excerpt)

Using far fewer games of structure, Jim Fox demonstrates that he understands the empathy in Marty’s playing. Fox usually works with quiet, beautifully ominous nightscapes and slow-creeping tonalities, and his piece – Among Simple Shadows – is no exception. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith blows a transparent and hushed last-post of a tune, which Marty shadows like the last hum resonating from the throat of a gospel bass. Bryan Pezzone’s piano flaps weightlessly in the wind, and casts anxious repeating clots of melody after the mingled brass and woodwind as they move through a dark-blue spectrum of emotions from quiet grief to undefinable hope.

Marty Walker: 'Among Simple Shadows; (30-second excerpt)

Of all the composers, Rick Cox might have the most fellow feeling for Marty Walker. After all, throughout On Tuesday that’s his own contra-alto clarinet playing in counterpoint to Marty’s bass model. This chokingly slow four-movement duet has more than a tinge of swamp-blues to it – like the last notes restlessly clinging onto the grass tussocks after the funeral procession is long gone and the coffin rests in its mausoleum, floating above the bayou. With both instruments burring and smearing towards the bottom of their ranges, there’s a sense of exhaustion. As with much to do with the blues, there’s also a feeling of unfinished business.

Marty Walker: 'On Tuesday – pt. 1; (30-second excerpt)

David Johnson (on vibraphone this time) returns to help Marty tackle Michael Jon Fink’s micro-concerto As Is Thought/Aurora. This time, they make a trio with orchestral harpist Susan Allen. A tense set of precise unison arpeggios, venturing warily out into space, are connected and soothed by Marty, whose jazz-inflected way with the shaping of his bridging phrases counters the music-box abruptness of the other instruments. As the piece’s initial trepidation melts, like the dissolution of fear, Allen’s harp comes more to the fore. Each instrument softens, progressively handing the others a tiny cadence of notes to repeat – a canon which clambers on like hands swapping grip-space on a rope, continuing to move outwards.

Marty Walker: 'As Is Thought/Aurora; (30-second excerpt)

Overall, ‘Dancing On Water’ reaffirms Marty Walker’s excellence as an interpretative musician, providing a set of multiple masques – or masks – for him to excel in. Still, I’m left uncomfortably whetted and slightly unsatisfied. His generous illumination of the music of others draws me into hankering after other aspects of his musicality – the creator, the improviser; the Marty Walker who’s drawn on his own music to provide that illumination. Hints of this are dotted all over ‘Dancing On Water’ in every cunningly bent note, in every hint of intelligence drawn from outside – even in the times when he steps back into the ensemble, upstaged on his own record.

There’s power in a name. Perhaps Marty Walker’s name, and his musical identity, has become too powerful to let him play second fiddle on his recordings. ‘Dancing On Water’ certainly showcases his talents, but in comparison to other Cold Blue albums – each firmly stamped with a composer’s identity – it feels like a picture of a man grown just a bit too big to comfortably wear other people’s handed-over suits in his own house.

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’
Cold Blue Music, CB0005 (800413000525)
CD-only album
Released: 5th June 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music

Marty Walker online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’ album, 2001 (“into the tundra of forgetfulness”)

7 Aug
Michael Jon Fink: 'I Hear It In The Rain'

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’

Often it’s as simple as this – for true treasure, let go of the precious.

Michael Jon Fink (operating within New Music but sidestepping much of its systematic, lab-dulled pretensions) proves it on this album of close-up and subtle music, aided by remarkably sympathetic collaborators – textural guitarist Rick Cox, percussionist Dan Morris, Bryan Pezzone on piano and celesta, and bass clarinetist Marty Walker. There’s something of Gavin Bryars’ evanescent emotional skill to Fink’s music; something of the soft spatial blur of the Evanses (both Bill and Gil); but little of the chart-plotting dryness of a composer after cleverness points. Although Fink’s composing seems to be romantic at heart, he’s well aware of what modernism lets him draw by implication. ‘I Hear It In The Rain’ has feeling in plenty, but doesn’t lay out its secrets that easily.

During Five Pieces For Piano, Bryan Pezzone’s soft playing presses oh-so-gently on our ears. Fink’s music emerges from Pezzone’s piano so delicately that it hardly disturbs the air, as silent as night-travelling stealth ships, yet it sets reactions moving. The musical voicings are widely spaced, just dissonant enough for a shadow of doubt. The melodies are simple – songs from a sleepy child on the road – and it’s Pezzone’s exquisite touch on both keys and pedals that brings out Fink’s intentions.

The sparse sketch of Passing sounds like Debussy, but also like worksong. Its tentative descending melodies touch down in firm but unsettled chords – displaced, jazz-shadowed. Constrained by its skeletal melodic discipline, Mode uses space instead to ask its wordless questions, which remain unanswered by the rising minor-key bass arpeggio of Fragment and the two-note treble alternation which rings on and on – absently, a long-ignored alarm that’s forgotten both urgency and reason and instead beats out its worn, relaxing ritual. For Echo, two cycles of elegantly picked-out notes overlap each other, engaging not like machine parts but like two people caught unwittingly in a loose parallel. The fifth and final piece, Epitaph, draws the harmony together. The sustained, rising rumble of each decaying bass note holds the attention, while a melody in the mid-range takes up the implications of a death song.

This is not about feelings being directly manipulated. Fink’s music induces them, drawing into the gaps and implications between the notes. A lot of it is timing: the attuned sensibilities of a performer and a composer both inspired by the subtle, near-telepathic interreactions of small-group jazz. More of the slender, yet involving, same can be found within Two Preludes For Piano. The first of these, Image, keeps that same poise between amnesia and raptness as the Five Pieces do, tiny details slipping past the pared-back structure of Fink’s notes. The second, Wordless, heads further into the tundra of forgetfulness: the tenor- and soprano-range parts thoughtful and reassuring, but set just far enough apart from each other for disturbance, fading unresolved into the deep evening.

When Fink and Pezzone leave the piano’s subtle, powerful dynamism, they favour the celesta – an instrument which demands (and produces) an exquisite clarity, but with soap-bubble fragility. While the instrument is chillier and less robust than the timbrally similar Rhodes piano (the jazzer’s usual choice for the otherworldly), Fink turns this into a virtue. Initially, For Celesta seems as physically ephemeral as a frost-painting – bright points glimmering on a window – but grows by degrees as Pezzone brings out the full resonance of the instrument’s range. A beautifully sleepy melody grows, reflection by reflection. It’s precise, yet weighted oddly by its slow ebb and return of acceleration; and by the sudden unexpected welling-up of emotional and physical volume midway through, before returning to its soft contemplation.

Elsewhere, Fink’s moods are less compressed and matter-of-fact titles are left behind for more poetic names. On Living To Be Hunted By The Moon (which could be a nod to Gurdijieff’s mythology of soul-eating moons, or to even older fears) Fink builds a landscape of powerful but distant sampler drones. These slant across the sky like angled, endless, featureless walls, each one eerily bisecting the former with a disquieting geometry. Underneath this beautiful and subtly oppressive canopy the marvellously expressive Marty Walker purrs and throbs all-but-subliminal lines on his bass clarinet. It comes across as a supernatural play of light represented in sound, but once again Fink’s near-narcotic sense of subtle disassociation comes into play. His soundscapes hover overhead like a deferred threat, or like a beautiful, cruel and thoughtless god – something to be crept past; something of predatory attentions, carefully evaded.

Michael Jon Fink: ‘Living To Be Hunted By The Moon’ (excerpt)

No such emotional deferral happens on the album’s title track, which is also it’s haunting and lovely finale. Everything that has been promised (or hidden) elsewhere on the album settles home like final snow, or final tears. Where all else has been sparse and minimal, I Hear It In The Rain is luxuriant and gently cathartic. Dreamily slow, founded on Fink’s pedal-point of bass guitar and the gentle rocking motion of his bell-like keyboards, it’s shot through with fluttering orchestra-sized samples of tremulous cellos, blending with the soft rushes of Morris’ gongs and bell trees. Rick Cox’s electric guitars (teased into hallucinatory smears by sponge or glass implements) buoy up the spectral and blissfully desolate melodies, dissolving the emotional suspense in one long resolution; dissolving you too and easing you out through your opening window up into another warm and solitary Los Angeles night.

Words aplenty… I could go on and on to you about the restraint and wisdom in Michael Jon Fink’s work, but what gets me every time is its sheer and honest beauty. There’s a disciplined mind at work here: it’s also one which is in touch with such universality of feelings that praising his deft economy and musical grammar seems reductive. I could pin him down further for you, but what matters might be beyond by reach – though, even as I finish this, it’s come filtering through the air to reach back to me again. Simple. Special. Indispensable.

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’
Cold Blue Music, CB0004 (800413000426)
CD/download album
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Michael Jon Fink online:
HomepageLast FM iTunes

REVIEW – John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’ album, 2009 (“stark rectitude and detachment”)

6 Aug
John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: 'Chamber Music'

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’

As well as being a composer, John P. Hastings is a curator. Actually… no. Separating the two terms suggest that there’s a gap between them: some kind of change in philosophy or mental state. It’s true that when he’s not composing, Hastings involves himself in arranging and hosting music events and sonic installations in his adopted home of Brooklyn, New York (via the ‘Sound Series’ at Presents Gallery) as well as co-running ‘The Experimental Music Yearbook’. However, it seems clear that these other activities might not involve much of a conceptual shift. I’ll come back to this later.

Starting off in Washington and Virginia, Hastings was at one time a late-’90s college rocker, playing guitar and writing songs for the post-grunge band Utris. After that he moved his base to CalArts and moved his musical allegiance – with a vengeance – to New Music via avant-garde process work and sonic art. While Utris occasionally dabbled in hard-rocking drones, Hastings’ subsequent music (be it orchestral, laptop-based or both) has quietly and methodically embraced many of the scientific components of late-twentieth-century conservatoire culture. His work sometimes shades carefully and soberly into the post-modern (via technology, found sound, chance methods and a fascination for the minutiae of microtones and the harmonic series) but his primary commitment has been to formalism and to music which establishes, as he defines it, “a logical and rationally satisfying whole.” His early chamber music pieces are rooted at the sternest end of late modernism, asserting a profound minimalism and blending it with clear process-based choices.

This debut collection reflects this position in all of its stark rectitude and detachment. All three of the minimal yet sonorous pieces here were performed either by the New Century Players (CalArts’ ensemble of “emerging musical language” musicians) or by Ensemble 303 (the experimental music group co-led by Hastings and Casey Thomas Anderson). Similarly, they were recorded in guarded heart-zones of the Californian avant-garde – two pieces in Roy O. Disney Hall at CalArts, and one in The Wulf gallery in downtown Los Angeles. These rooms seem to enclose and encourage the music in its deliberately slender and depthless form; its impassiveness; its focus on insidious pared-down number structures beneath the apparent form and textures. The musical notes themselves are explicitly passive components in a sparse mathematical schema, although this doesn’t stop them from often being beautiful.

Hastings makes his allegiance to science and mathematics plain from the off: the large-ensemble piece ‘telluric currents’ (performed by the New Century Players) is named after subterranean electric fields. Less scientifically, Hastings also describes in terms somewhere between angels’ trumpets and astro-metaphysics – “the music of the spheres, sounded with a low B-flat.” Translated, this means a single-note composition, though Hastings also states that it’s actually “one note, two curves.” The latter would appear to mean a gradual rise in pitch and an arc across the differing ranges of orchestral instruments. As for the former, every component note of the piece is a B-flat: precise timbre, octave and duration vary, but the pitch class doesn’t. The result is a kind of a chameleonic sound-curtain made up of nothing but octave variations on the same note.

In the opening moments, a low string drone is gradually joined by a low brass drone: after a minute and a half, the mid-range strings are backing up the low ones. Soon afterwards, the first of a set of horn soundings begin, adding to an enveloping hum. With no more than a single stacked set of octave intervals available to him, Hastings induces a surprisingly full sound, overlaying different instruments in different timbres and within different octaves to cover a broader spectrum of sound. The New Century Players seamlessly slot in replacement instruments as others fall out. It’s a little like a Risset scale trick reversed: instead of producing a continuous cyclic illusion of rising, the process camouflages a genuine rise. Those final sustained high B-flats (carried on stratospheric harmonics once all lower-pitched instruments have fallen away) come almost as a surprise. While this renders ‘telluric currents’ as more of an acoustic demonstration than a composition, Hastings’ arrangement of pitches and the ensemble’s dedication ensure that the listener walks away feeling that they’ve received much more musical information than they have.

‘Sonic Spiral’ (recorded by Ensemble 303 at the Wulf) is billed as “music and math in direct correlation” and as “a sound equivalent of the Fibonacci series.” It’s not the first time that the latter has been employed in structuring music. Building up from a start-point of zero and one, successive Fibonacci numbers sum the previous two, resulting in rapid and increasing jumps in magnitude as the sequence progresses. Spirals based on a linear and increasing Fibonacci sequence closely resemble “perfect” spirals based on the golden ratio, tying them in with idealised human architecture. Their appeal in guiding a compositional approach is obvious – allegedly, Bartók used them to compute part of the structure for ‘Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta’.

Hastings’ own seventeen-minute Fibonacci piece is written for 11 unspecified tunable instruments. On the Wulf recording, I think I can hear low brass, standard and bass clarinets, violin and viola, saxophone… but what I predominantly hear is sustain, and the long harmonics which it allows to play against each other. Hasting winds the piece up with a little silver key of mathematics and simply lets it unfurl. Over seventeen minutes, the development is glacially slow. More accurately, it’s indifferent to human priorities of time and gratification; obeying rules of harmonic motion or aggrandisement set by the Fibonacci sequence.

Sitting on its locked tonal centre, the piece seems static, a softly growing hum within a gentle dynamic range. It’s actually an ever-growing and increasingly complex chord, moving subliminally up a spectrum of pitch into which new notes are eased and out of which silvery harmonic whistles sprout according to acoustic interference. Around eight minutes and forty-five seconds a lone violin seems to emerge from the stack, dipping over its own sustain and briefly leading the ensemble. It’s an illusion: the instrumentation is less dense at that point, revealing the mechanical workings of one briefly exposed instrument. The tiny dips and recoveries in pitch between continuous bowstrokes, the human flutter and inevitable tiny flaws of the working player, seem momentarily to impose a new idea on the piece: but the grand plan has always been dictated by the numbers. Just as the piece was wound up, so it winds back down.

Unlike the other two pieces, ‘desertum’ lacks a stated mathematical context. Instead, following Hastings’ habit of bringing in arcane or mythological references, it’s touted as “the dark shadow of an Earthly paradise.” Apparently performances of ‘desertum’ can be between fourteen and twenty-one minutes long. Perhaps I’ve missed some obscure rule-of-seven which Hastings hasn’t mentioned. This particular recording is eighteen minutes and twenty-two seconds long – or one thousand, one hundred and two seconds. Neither of which fit the sevens. Maybe maths isn’t dictating the process this time, although I suspect that its hidden rational hand still guides the way: perhaps the clues are elsewhere.

Despite the instrumental billing – brass quintet and percussion quartet – the main instrumentation on ‘desertum’ is an uncredited sub-bass tone. Pure, continuous and borderline subliminal, it runs throughout at a single unchanging pitch. Too textureless for an actual drone, it acts as a flattened-out level ground for the other instruments to perch on: utterly unyielding, it renders everything they do impermanent. Periodically, the brass instruments engage in a kind of minimal fanfare, each playing a single elongated note as part of a staggered, overlapping arpeggio.

The resulting sound resembles a diagonal chord, changing component notes slightly on each widely-spaced repetition. The hierarchy of pitches changes too, sometimes with the higher notes sounding first, sometimes the lower or midrange. They stack up like wobbling columns of stones, or like the same ruins viewed from different angles. During the lengthy pauses between these chord-piles, assorted percussion winds quietly across that monotone floor – wary rattlesnakes sneaking past. There may well be a long game of determined structure here: a slow-motion play through a specialised harmonic sequence played out at an inhumanly attenuated, Morton Feldman-esque pace. Perhaps, without the score, I lack the patience or the ear to determine it.

Instead (listening with more abstract, literary ears) what I hear in ‘desertum’ is a generalised sense of place – a parched and uncaring environment in which any human scratch or sculpting remains solitary and ignored, however vividly it stands up against the dry horizon. Hastings’ chords stand unrewarded and unresolved, isolated between ground and sky. Any message or change which they might carry is reduced to a molecular level. Wherever the idea of an earthly paradise fits in is an open guess. Perhaps the brass instrumentation was chosen for its association with angels, and the broken contortions of chords and desolate lack of movement imply the failure of Eden and the bitter aridity of Exodus. Perhaps Hastings’ rationalism discourages too much of a literary or Biblical interpretation, and ‘desertum’ is simply an existential communication about us – placed in hostile and impartial landscapes, struggling against the odds to make our lives and establish our significance.

Rooms and spaces which encourage. Landscapes that reject… All right, these are classic pathetic fallacies of the kind which Hastings’ more rational side might reject. But on the other hand, I think that this more emotive idea of placings, of placement, does have a relevance. Bar the utterly aleatoric or the free improvisers, almost all working composers ensure that each note and harmony used has a place in the scheme. The utter minimalism provided by these works (with their mathematical maps, their formal constraints, their refusal to allow any kind of horizontal development other than that permitted for duration and equation) works differently.

In these pieces, Hastings comes across less as a composer and more as a kind of… curator of notes. Rather than putting those notes to work, he maps them, provides them with a decreed academic location, gives them their single fixed point in his sonic display and keeps them safe there. He can and will demonstrate where they come from and how they fit in, but it’s as if his artistic work as curator of events has overlapped and merged with his compositional creativity to the extent that it’s now difficult to tell them apart. Similarly (and with the possible exception of the stonily suggestive ‘desertum’) its hard to imagine these three pieces existing and living outside the shelter of the Wulf, the Disney Hall  or their equivalent art-labs dotted around the world. It’s where music like this is safe: is understood and identified; ultimately, is pinned down.

To be honest, sometimes it’s as much about the chamber as it is about the music.

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’
Bandcamp
Download-only album
Released: 21st April 2009

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

John P. Hastings online:
Homepage FacebookBandcampTumblr

New Century Players online:
Homepage

Ensemble 303 online:
Homepage

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’ album (“like floodwater in the night”)

10 Feb

Jim Fox: 'Last Things'

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’

Renewing his Cold Blue Music label for the millennium, Californian composer Jim Fox has set himself up as its figurehead, although not in a triumphal manner. Pomp and flamboyance wouldn’t sit well with Cold Blue’s explorations in New Music, and this first new release out of the Cold Blue bag doesn’t need to grab attention, anyway. The two Fox compositions on this album (slow-moving, implicatory, atmospheric and deliciously disturbing) surround you instead, like floodwater in the night.

With distractedly moving electronic traces making up the bulk of the music, The Copy Of The Drawing is rooted in chopped, diced and rearranged texts from letters sent to Mount Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1955 while Los Angeles swelled from backwater to metropolis. These fragments are recited by Janyce Collins in a ice-queen whisper. Her cold lips brush your ear with a beautifully cool eroticism, its detachment only increasing its power. Often phrases are followed by glassy, ratcheting harmonic sound: as if a telescope, smoothly rotating on gimbals, is trying to take a fix on the target the words imply.

Slithering passes of moth-soft electronics slide around the words as if they’re unimportant, part of the ambient backchat in any place of science. Occasionally almost-vocal smudges of transparent noise ring up in (and fall away from) the foreground: although in some respects there is no foreground, just a slow sub-zero swirl of ambient hints, briefly smeared, like time-exposure photographs. Scrapes and subliminal swarms, jump-starting drifting thoughts in the narration; quick-drowning sounds like disturbances in ice-water or the imprints of decaying viola counterpoint and dying Gregorian chant.

Allegedly, The Copy Of The Drawing is non-dramatic. But Fox’s placement of these words, the stop/start fragments and interrupted clauses (“a jumbled mess – enough to give you an idea”) suggest otherwise. The phenomena of observed and notated science are often invoked with the reverence with which scientists replace religious awe, but sometimes as a kind of anchor (“light is always the same – water is H2O…”) against the misgivings whispered in brief passes elsewhere. “Self-deficient – diffused self – applied phenomena – name – danger lies in the abstract…” Before long we’ve heard statements of meticulous preparations (“I have put it in three different envelopes – airproof, fireproof, waterproof”) and chilly accounts of emotional hallucinations. “I still heard talking – I have heard babies crying and screaming – like in a photo – babies can hear me writing this – the pictures can talk to me – they’re not lonely – and it won’t stop…”

Jim Fox: 'The Copy Of The Drawing' (30-second excerpt)

Explicit disturbance is rare, and Collins’ voice remains uniformly glacial whatever the content of her script. Nonetheless, anxiety and revelation are blended throughout, with the prismatic narrative musing on thoughts such as “No-one may ever have the same knowledge – everything running up and in and out.” Certainly there’s disintegration here – a loss of assurance, causality dissolving into “a possibility – there was such a thing – invisibility… before that – all history – it doesn’t seem possible… / it’s closer if you draw a line – on that line – all depends.” At one point, Collins recites a list which explicitly fails to reduce events, phenomena and states of existence to anything tidy. “Stuff – factors – motion – the perpendicularity – the process – the parts of things – the female principles of nature – etcetera – quite incomprehensible due to its invisibility – something that is true – close by – far…”

Covertly, Fox seems to be attempting to reconcile the cosmological with the personal. Collins’ narration of astronomers’ notes seem to take on revealingly intimate suggestions (“thousands of small pushes a second – inertia is very great”) and equates the paths of cosmic debris with those of people (“one of the incoming pieces of matter – there may be more – they may travel together…”) Maybe it’s a reflection of the gravity of cities like Los Angeles – pulling in immigrants, the lost and wandering, accreting mass as it does so. Maybe it’s an idea about scientists allowing the unsettling parallels of poetry and metaphor to sneak into their notebooks and resound in those working lives which they’ve obediently sealed away from personal concerns. This is observatory music, for certain. But the question of exactly what is being observed here is an open question. It’s one which ultimately leaves you without an answer; although perhaps it does leave you with a cold, indifferently sensuous kiss.

With Last Things itself, the sky is lowering. An ominous drop, as Fox conjures up not so much a drone of bass synth as a faraway envelope of it (massed over our heads like apocalyptic cloud) and then rings us round with a distant thunderous fence of bass-register piano, rumbling tectonically and eerily, like the harbinger of the great Californian earthquake. Trapped between stooping sky and unquiet ground, we bear witness to a passionate, wordless pieta in which the dominant instrumental voice (Marty Walker’s brilliantly tortuous bass clarinet) sounds famished, and as oppressed as we are by the press of sound. Walker’s control is remarkable – he travels between delicate, near-inaudible quivers of notes; great wide splits of sound that crack with emotion; and magnificent mournful coyote calls, summoning up visions of friendless desert vistas.

Jim Fox: 'Last Things' (30-second excerpt)

Relief, of a sort, comes from Chas Smith’s pedal steel guitar. Almost choral in its breadth, it’s the one truly calming element in Fox’s musical painting. It’s a Pacific palliative which voices itself as distant balm to Walker’s painful questioning, or as a glimmer of light on the crack of the horizon. At around the eight-and-a-half minute mark, sounds like distant foghorns appear in the murk to add their own skein of warning and disquiet. More ethereal, less hungry, but hardly less of a disturbing portent are the rubbing glass rods on Rick Cox’s treated guitar, hanging dying trails of luminescence in the middle distance.

When Last Things fades out, the hope of things resolved has given way to a kind of acceptance. We’ve come to terms with the fearsome displacement and anxiety in Fox’s California soundscapes to such a degree that we’ve probably failed to notice that he’s finally resolved the music with a chordal and dynamic shift so subtle as to almost escape notice – like life settling itself in, a warm beast, around the jags, harshnesses and daily warnings of a threatening environment.

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’
Cold Blue Music, CB0001 (800413000129)
CD/download album
Released: 5th February 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Jim Fox online:
Homepage