Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Four new recordings from Wandelweiser.

Tom Johnson - Counting Keys (Edition Wandelweiser)

My reaction to Tom Johnson's music in the past has visited the extremes of hot and cold. I love "An Hour for Piano", really like most of "Rational Melodies" and am unreasonably fond of "Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass". On the other hand, on my short list of suggestions for interrogation soundtracks to reduce the most hardened mass murderer to a pile of mush, I'd place "The Chord Catalog". Perhaps this is impressive in and of itself. John McAlpine performs four works here that skirt the boundaries between math experiment and oddly lovely music. "Counting Keys" (1982), in five segments, utilizes fairly clear additive and modulative rules, iterating one kind of approach per segment, watching as the results expand, contract, cascade. The rote aspect never quite transcends its directives, though, and the end product, while attractive, remains somewhat dry. Desirous of writing a piece "consisting more of silence than sound", Johnson created "Organ and Silence for Piano" (2002), which does just that, though some of the sounded parts in the first couple of sections are a bit...pompous, as though defensive of their turf. It quiets down some and the methodology for generating note sequences is less overt throughout, though one still senses it's buried down there somewhere. But the ambiguity imparts a more poetic feel and, indeed, the silences are well used and come to have a real solidity.

As its title suggests, "Tilework for Piano" (2003) makes use of tiling properties, as imagined for musical notation. Now, admittedly, I'm a big fan of tiling and if I would have preferred something with a more Penrose feel, I do think that in this piece, Johnson does manage to transcend the topography of his construction, which involves laying triplets "alongside" each other, five of them in various groupings, repeated as many times as there are combinations. There's a playfulness, almost of a animal nature, to be heard, the notes skipping and prancing in clearly defined groups whose relationship to each other is constantly in flux. Sort of like Penrose tiles...."Block Design for Piano" (2005), my favorite on this recording, has an exceedingly complicated plan involving 330 6-note arpeggios but as McAlpine points out in his liner notes, these blueprints are all but inaudible, the listener instead somewhat enraptured by the haze of those rising figures, the harmonies quite gorgeous for all their rigorous base, a fine blossoming sense reached by irregularly (?) varying the lengths of the arpeggios from four to five to six notes. Quite beautiful.

Michael Pisaro - Hearing Metal 1 (Edition Wandelweiser)

The first Stockhausen I ever heard, back in college, was Microphonie and I've always remained partial to the general family of sounds elicited therein. So it's not surprising, all else aside, that I'm drawn to the music here, derived from the excitation, via bows and strokes of a 60" tam-tam much like that used by Stockhausen, sensitively played by Greg Stuart. The added flavor, as is Pisaro's wont, is the integration of sine tones pitched very close to the range of the tam-tam itself, becoming almost indistinguishable from it insofar as the sine throbs might well be mimicked by bowing action on the metal. One soon ceases to care as the music, infinitely complex when played at volume, envelops the listener. Pisaro describes "Sleeping Muse" as "something like a four-part chorale of bowed sounds" and merely reading about the approach might summon up drone-y, rather flaccid work but this is nothing of the kind. As rich, (relatively) tonal and flowing as the music is, the range of detail, the the endless swirls are entirely absorbing; one guesses that the sine tones are the spinal fluid here, imparting a kind of meaning to the arcing tones.

"The Endless Column" (the three pieces, by the way, are all titled after Brancusi sculptures) slows things done lusciously, a series of strokes (recorded individually, ordered randomly, one after another) swaddling a slowly rising sine tone which, again, is more felt than heard. The deliberateness of this piece is wonderful; one gets something of a prayer bell feeling but with the peals entirely dissembled. The final work, "Sculpture for the Blind", superimposes eight layers of bowing, again interwoven with sine tones, the durations of the bowing increasing over the ten minutes of the piece. The structure thus falls midway between the preceding two, combining the drone of "Sleeping Muse" with the slow pulse of "The Endless Column" as well as containing a fine, subtle grainy character that gives it a different coloration. Again, the focus one hears, on the part of both the composer and performer, keeps the music from drifting into gauze, not even close.

Wonderful recording, one of the best I've heard in recent months.

Antoine Beuger - two.too (for erwin-josef speckmann) (Edition Wandelweiser)

Two discs, the first an almost hour-long duet, "two", with Irene Kurka (soprano) and Jürg Frey (clarinet). The voice and clarinet alternate long, pure tones, Kurka very gradually singing the text: "as the full moon rises/the swan sings/in sleep/on the lake of the mind" (Kenneth Rexroth). The pair kind of seesaw back and forth, very calm and deliberate, reciting the words one at a time but repeating each many, many times, changing pitch with each advance in the poem. Beuger's concern for space is evident; it spools out slowly, like a thread in water. I find myself first rather entranced, then gradually bored, then fascinated again, going back and forth on an even slower pendulum than the performers. Ultimately, I found my attention wandering around the 40 minute mark.

But then there's "too". I had first listened to it without having read Richard's analysis of the piece (with the help of info from the composer). I would have realized after another listen or two, I think, that the underlying body of "too" was precisely the same recording just heard, but I never guessed that the "accompanying" duo of Rhodri Davies (Irish harp) and Ko Ishikawa (sho) had been lifted from a Hibari recording done in 2006 (one I don't own) and transplanted, the 20 minute track laid three times in succession over "two", just overlapping it on each end, tucking it in. Perhaps a closer examination of the recording dates may have hinted as much, but the two performances are so well integrated that the notion may never have crossed my mind. Technical details aside, the addition of Davies and Ishikawa absolutely open up the work. What was once intriguing if a bit arid now just blossoms. The Hibari recording also contained large amounts of space so there's never the slightest sense of overcrowding (indeed there remain, still, many moments when none of the four are creating sound). It may be due in substantial part to the affinity between the four voices, the harp providing a soft percussiveness that lovingly accents the smoother tones from voice, clarinet and mouth organ. There are times when the voice and sho are in almost perfect unison, others when the harp seems to be supplying just the right counterpoint. It's an inspired, not to say unusual choice, and Beuger aced it, an impressive decision. "too" becomes a rapturous experience, well more than the sum of its parts.

Stefan Thut/Manfred Werder - Im Sefinental (Editions Wandelweiser)

What to say about this release? How to possibly offer a qualitative opinion? To all aural appearances, we have two field recordings done in a glacial area of Germany, near rushing water, on the same day, each a bit over a half-hour long. You can hear some small sounds apart from the water: a plane far overhead, birds, perhaps wind rustling long grass, but the water is the backbone. Variations between the two works are minor (the second, by Werder, contains some very high-pitched squeaks that might be avian--there are crow caws at one point--and, I think, more buffeting of the mic by wind); maybe they were recorded at the same time from different vantages, opposite sides of the stream. Have they been enhanced or otherwise worked on? Hard to say; nothing that strikes me as obvious. So, one simply sits back and listens.

What sets them apart from any number of "mood enhancing" environmental recordings done since the 60s? There is a difference, I daresay, perhaps having to do with focus, depth of audio field, sustained concentration. That last probably makes the greatest impression, the willingness not to seek overt change. They each end with alarming abruptness. I enjoyed them. Hard to say exactly why except that, if nothing else, they strike me as honest.

Strong set of releases.


Available stateside from erstdist


Richard Pinnell said...

Its good to read of you enjoying these Brian. Am I right in thinking these were your first Wandelweisers?

I am still struggling with the Johnson disc. I like the second half of the CD more than the first but need to listen more. That one is certainly quite a different, and brave release from the label though.

Brian Olewnick said...

Yeah, they are--I thought I had one or two but apparently not. I've been meaning to investigate the label for a couple of years but just never got around to it (though I listened to the streaming webcast often). Need to remedy that.

Jon said...

Wandelweiser's US distributor scored some promos for him. :)