Tag: electronics

Sounds Heard: Mariel Roberts—Nonextraneous Sounds

If anything is clear in the first few moments of Mariel Roberts’s debut CD Nonextraneous Sounds, it’s that this will not be just a polite collection of unremarkable wallpaper works for solo cello. Actually, unless you are already prepared for what’s coming, it’s not even completely clear that a cello is what’s at the forefront of the mix.

Opening with a transfixing performance of Andy Akiho’s Three Shades, Foreshadows, Roberts touches bow to strings at various points to percussive effect (the thwack of col legno, scratching and creaking tightly across the strings, the whisper of bow drawn across bridge, etc.), but the body of the piece is filled with dense streams of pizzicato along with knocks and taps against the instrument’s body and strings. The live solo line is ensconced in three electronic parts built out of samples of acoustic cello. The resulting quartet—an effect further underlined by the way the electronic part moves around the sonic field—is as much a percussive exercise as anything. The deep, muted bell tones which open the work and obscure the source of the sound are revealed in the liner notes to be the sonic result of plucked strings with clothes pins attached to them near the base of the fingerboard. Still, for as much creativity as has been employed in conjuring the timbral world of the piece, Akiho never seems to get distracted by it or employ techniques as a mere gimmick. Only in the work’s final fading moments, with the last remaining line clicking away like a spun-out film projector, did I even remember that the palette he was drawing from was not the way one generally went about playing the cello in the first place.

Sean Friar’s Teaser plays with listener expectations along a different line. He spins the music’s emotional character on a dime, mixing charming scraps of delicate tune work with fiery bombardments of sliding double stops and lines scratched across the instrument’s strings that might send a chill through you. Daniel Wohl also makes generous use of some fairly abrasive timbres in his Saint Arc, but these sharp objects play out in the context of a great deal of “air” which he lets into the piece through the quiet brush of the moving bow and extensive harmonic usage. A pre-recorded electronic track further amplifies this scenario. Alex Mincek then keeps the brushing but drains the aggression for his Flutter. Beginning in a place that is restless rather than hostile, the work skitters lightly across quick snatches of bowed phrases and nervous col legno, slowly gaining confidence, weight, and a striking, deep-snoring calm by the piece’s final measures.

That nap is not to last, however. Particularly if the demanding techniques employed in the album’s middle works have begun to emotionally exhaust the listener, Tristan Perich’s Formulations represents as a welcome shift of gears (not that Roberts gets to take a break). That it is a Perich piece will be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with his 1-bit work. In this case, his programmed microchips emit a rapid-fire sequence of flickering notes within which Roberts matches pace. After the first ten minutes, Roberts gets a breather and when her line returns to the mix after a two-minute recovery, she enters with firm, long strokes, as if steering the flickering swirl of pitch that surrounds her, slowing its frantic pace, and guiding everyone home.


Sounds Heard: Annie Gosfield—Almost Truths and Open Deceptions

In the liner notes of her latest recording, Almost Truths and Open Deceptions, Annie Gosfield writes of her “parallel lives” performing music with her own band and writing fully notated compositions for other musicians and ensembles. With both of those worlds represented on this recording, it seems more that her two creative worlds are deeply interconnected, influencing one another and sharing common musical elements and sources of inspiration.

One of the striking things about Gosfield’s music is its unusual combination of visceral rawness and otherworldly distance. It often has a very direct sort of in-your-face quality while her obsession with broken machinery and obsolete technology crafts a somewhat ghostly scrim around the instrumental sounds. But because her connection to the technology is personal—much of it has been inspired by her family history—it is mysterious in the way that wandering around in a grandparent’s attic searching for old letters or hidden secrets can feel haunting and nostalgic at once.

The first track, Wild Pitch, was composed for the ensemble Real Quiet, featuring cellist Felix Fan (a major player, literally, throughout the CD), percussionist David Cossin, and pianist Andrew Russo. The piece travels through episodes of strong, lyrical cello lines that spill into frenetic ensemble interludes, which do indeed give the impression of a baseball game gone mad. The instruments flail away only to exhaust themselves into new contemplative states that give rise to more cycles of stillness and activity. An enticing assortment of small percussion instruments such as cymbals and small gongs mesh well with the sound world created by the piano and cello, and the score is thoughtfully arranged with all instruments nicely balanced in the mix.

Gosfield performs often on a sampling keyboard, mapped with a selection of sounds that seems to bear no relation to a piano keyboard. (I have often wondered how she keeps track of all the samples!) It is a nice surprise to hear her playing an actual piano on Phantom Shakedown, accompanied by an arsenal of electronic sounds created out of recordings made from failing technology, such as a broken radio. Her playing contains hints of numerous styles, from Romantic era to ragtime, and this combination of piano with electronics is quite beautiful and artfully coordinated, especially when the piano lets up after periods of intense activity, allowing the electronics to shine through to the foreground.

The showcase work of this disc, Almost Truths and Open Deceptions, is a hefty chamber concerto for cello with 2 violins, viola, contrabass, piano, and percussion featuring cellist Felix Fan again in the spotlight along with the other 3/4ths of the Flux Quartet. Gosfield pulls a nice big sound out of the ensemble during several raucous tutti sections; about 11 minutes into the work, the group flits briefly into a nightclub-ish sound, evoking a more intimate, smaller space. The music again builds, up to a different shift in texture to pizzicato strings and a pounding bass drum. After another boisterous period, the cello calms everything down to a wavering drone on D that gradually fades into silence.

The following track, Daughters of the Industrial Revolution, is a big change in instrumental scope and sonic palette. Written for Gosfield’s mixed quartet, it features rock guitar and drums with sampled machine and factory sounds set to a pulsing 4/4 groove. In Cranks and Cactus Needles Gosfield brings her passion for the sounds of broken and obsolete technology directly to her instrumental writing, as the Stockholm-based ensemble The Pearls Before Swine Experience recreates the warping, uneven sounds associated with old 78rpm records through their instrumentation of violin, flute, cello, and piano. This piece is structured differently than the others on this disc (to my ear), with a smoother through-line and more subtle gradations between the contrasting spare and busy textures that characterize much of Gosfield’s work.

Almost Truths and Open Deceptions is a selection of well-constructed, carefully recorded works that show how the parallel pathways of a band member and concert music composer can gel into a singular artistic vision.

Sounds Heard: Robert Carl—From Japan

I am already on record as an admirer of Hartford-based composer Robert Carl’s music. His compositional language, which to my ear mixes a nuanced experimentalism within organic phrasings, speaks to me on a deep and strangely (considering that all the pieces I’ve heard are wordless) philosophical level. It readily takes me to an existential thinking place. Given that, I admittedly approached his latest release on New World Records, From Japan, with high expectations.

The slow pacing of the opening composition, A Clean Sweep (2005), invites deep and careful listening to the tones of a single shakuhachi (played here with notable sensitivity by Elizabeth Brown), and it accomplishes this without ever inducing the feeling that the listener is trapped in an expensive hotel spa. This is attributable in part to the way the poetic breath of the instrument is held in sharp contrast against a metallic, whining drone of variable pitch, which keeps a steady twist of tension running through the work. The two elements tangle on equal sonic ground, the drone taking on the role of a dance partner rather than a chaperone. A second performance of the work closes the disc, for which the composer joins Brown in a shakuhachi duet of sorts, the two artists leaning into and away from each other over the drone, providing slight variations on a single melodic line. It makes for a naturally more complex and crowded reading, but also one filled with more warmth in the companionship of making it.

In between these neat bookends are three later works by Carl. In the course of its 16-minute run time, Bullet Cycle (2007) takes the listener on a journey that mixes recordings made inside Japan’s high-speed bullet trains with the sounds of acoustic musicians (two improvising soloists and a percussive time keeper, roles here performed by Katie Kennedy, cello; Bill Solomon, vibraphone; and Sayun Chang, percussion). The world Carl establishes drifts in more of a leisurely spiral than typical point-to-point travel, the music mimicking something more akin to a dozing passenger’s experience—uneasy sleep regularly interrupted by train announcements and noise, the passage of time and miles strangely difficult to quantify, personal thoughts mixed up with glimpses of passing scenery, yet always the rocking train encouraging the mind to drift until just before the destination is reached.

Carl incorporates recorded sounds from Japan even more concretely in his electronic installation Collapsible Mandala (2008-09), his sources ranging from chattering birds to aggressive explosions, from children at play to adults in prayer. Though designed to be expanded and collapsed to suit various programming situations, the piece is here presented in a 26-minute version. In addition to the various ambient sound sources—which are collaged into sections ranging from seconds to minutes in length—the work includes fast fades into significant periods of silence (sometimes more than a minute in duration) between scenes. My experience of this structure surprised me; rather than allowing me to sink deeply into the music, I felt it as an extreme surface tension, the image of the preceding section echoing in the suddenly enforced quiet while my ear strove to catch the beginning of the next; meanwhile, the noise of my own listening environment taunted me with distractions.

At the very heart of the disc is Brown Velvet (2009-10), a piece for bassoon and live electronics (performed for this recording by Ryan Hare with Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn on laptop). Echoing elements of A Clean Sweep, the piece sets the woodwind against a deep drone of fluctuating pitch, its timbre this time more muted yet more ominous. Once again a deliberately paced dance plays out between the players, the drone supporting the movements of the bassoon, the bassoon made all the stronger in its ability to envelope the listener in the seductive richness of its tone. I never thought much about the dark beauty of the bassoon before, but this work makes it an unforgettable star.

Taken as a whole, the work included on From Japan may stand as a document to Carl’s multifaceted exploration of the intersection between American and Japanese musical culture. In much broader and perhaps simpler terms, however, it is evidence of how careful a listener Robert Carl is, and how generously he invites us all to listen with him.

Sounds Heard: Due East—drawn only once

I have been especially attracted to music that has a visual component of late. I get excited when concerts include film projections, and I often find myself reaching for the recordings packaged with DVDs first. I know there are those who would say that this reflects a childish inability to focus on recorded sound without fiddling with my cell phone. Admittedly, this may not be entirely off base, and visual presentations that accompany music can run the risk of simultaneously adding and subtracting (or sometimes only subtracting) from the experience. More often, however, I find that they provide a banister into certain new works on first listen and a kind of bonus poetry to music that is already familiar.

I got to thinking about all this again while listening to Due East’s drawn only once (late to the game, seven months after its release date—my apologies), a recording from the duo of flutist Erin Lesser and percussionist Greg Beyer, produced with a small cast of additional players. The album comes packaged as both an audio-only CD recording of two works by John Supko, as well as a 5.1 surround sound DVD which features accompanying videos by Kristine Marx and Don Sheehy.

To my eye, I couldn’t divorce the quick-cut style of abstract and processed imagery used in both video pieces from the way a feed of Instagram snapshots offers snatches of experience, shared and made romantic through filters and reinterpretation at a remove, half-glimpsed understandings of the intimate experiences of others.

This fit neatly with the push and pull of the music itself while leaving plenty of air in the room and sidestepping the idea that there was any sort of direct soundtracking occurring. Both pieces ride a disquiet of rapid motion that contrasts with a simultaneously delivered deeper meditative and exploratory spirit. (See liner notes for Supko’s discussion of his use of “tuned randomness” in the works, and a deeper analysis of how and why these aural images are created.)

The opening track, This Window Makes Me Feel, begins with a kind of inability to start, the closely mic’d shuffling pages and the stammer of breath the only sounds accompanying the visual images caught through (appropriately) windows, first bucolic and then urban in flavor (Hello, NYC pedestrians!). The narrator is hesitant to begin, apologetic even, and then she finally lets loose her rapid whisper of Robert Fitterman’s poem of the same name, only some of the words and phrases coming to the surface clearly—again, as with the visual, more of a half-grasped overheard confession than a message intended for the listener directly.

Beneath and around this 15-minute vocal bed, the breathing flutter of flute, the spare piano (David Broome) and percussion tones, the long pure notes sung by Hai-Ting Chinn (who makes an incantation out the work’s title) and plenty of ambient bits from the city streets ground the piece, anchoring the fidgeting admissions in the embrace of the wider, heavier world.

While the opening work carries a decidedly personal, perhaps even voyeuristic, and urban flavor, the latter, Littoral, feels both more outward looking and more expansive in scope (and not just because it clocks in at a lengthier 35 minutes). Here again the momentum to begin is slow to gain speed, the flute the most aggressive player in the fight to get free of the lethargy, though the percussion keeps at her heels. The tension ratchets up one notch at a time, and it’s not until more than eight minutes in that the first of the piece’s two text sources enters, recited by the author: Cees Nooteboom’s poem “Cartography (for Christina Barrosa)”. The flute and percussion weave in and around the language, reaching up and out until, in the middle of the poem, they suddenly fall, and the line goes fuzzy as if the listener has slipped out of signal range and a much stranger message in a bottle has drifted in to take its place. Up to this point in the work, the listener has been hearing (and seeing, for those watching along at home) allusions to large bodies of water, riding the sway of the current both by ear and by eye, but now a processed voice (the composer’s) narrates an excerpt from Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation (2nd edition, 1598-1600). As this glimpse of an historical ghost fades back into the spray. Nooteboom’s poetry returns, the pulse is up, the character sharper and more insistent. By the piece’s concluding moments, the pace may have cooled down again, but it’s been a tough voyage and we are all dirty and out of breath, a little older than when we embarked.

Sounds Heard: John Bischoff—Audio Combine

John Bischoff is a composer celebrated for his work at the cutting edge of live computer music, explorations that can be traced back all the way to the late 1970s and his experiments with his first KIM-1. Audio Combine, the recent New World Records release of Bischoff pieces spanning 2004-2011, is an undeniable reminder that, though his roots run deep, his music hasn’t been anchored.

As a recorded document, Audio Combine is one of those discs well suited to the “dark room/good headphones” listening experience, each track representing an opportunity to get lost inside a foreign landscape. Bischoff’s live performance of the music was recorded at The Mills College Concert Hall and mixed by Philip Perkins, in collaboration with the composer. Due to the unique way Perkins staged the recording—via three microphones placed around the hall in addition to Bischoff’s direct feed—there is much to feel aurally compelled to “look” at in the sonic field.

To begin with, the title track plays a teasing game of Whac-A-Mole using a host of delicate sounds—most memorably the plucked pitches of a music box—which slide into view with a gauzy grace before slipping quickly around the next corner and out of earshot. Sidewalk Chatter is a bit more glitch and crackle, while Local Color is built around the ring of struck metallic tones and the wavering and decay of pitches. In all of the aforementioned cases, the music is careful in its development; never overcrowded with sound or a blurry chaos of ideas. Bischoff remains patient, not afraid to punctuate with silence. There is air left in the room for reflection and exploration. It’s a framework taken to its sparest extreme (and, frankly, most Lynchian eeriness) in Decay Trace. Perhaps because of that, it also proved to be a personal favorite. This restraint is then somewhat shrugged off for the final track, Surface Effect, when the combine goes into hyperdrive, all breakers thrown, and luxuriates in the sum of the sounds that have been generated in the course of the hour-long disc.

As might be expected when dealing with such non-traditional sound creation and construction, there is a great deal of interesting background to be explored beyond the recordings themselves, information thoroughly outlined in the liner notes penned by Ed Osborn. Though his behind the curtain insights definitely provide illuminating added value, it’s also worth noting that they also aren’t strictly necessary. Bischoff’s music is not a sterile sonic experiment reporting its results, but a kind of conversation between man, machine, and the surrounding environment. The method is intriguing, but the resulting sound world is really all that matters.

NMBx FLASHBACK: The last time I caught up with John Bischoff, New World Records had just released The League of Automatic Music Composers, 1978–1983. Bischoff, a co-founding League member, stopped by to chat about what made-at-home computer music involved before the invention of the laptop. You can listen to our conversation here: