September: Der General (Brandenburger Symphoniker)
spring 2021: Mr. Beethoven (NYRB)
so this is it (Nightjar Press, September 2019)
(Henningham Family Press, April 30, 2020)
8 Wolfgang von Schweinitz: Plainsound String Trio 'KLANG auf Schön Berg La Monte Young'
Goeyvaerts String Trio
Louth Contemporary Music Society LCMS 1903
Imagine a slab of gold, gleaming faintly with reflected light from some unseen source in what is otherwise total darkness. It floats there, yet is solid. It is solid, but nevertheless alive with movement: turning a little, having slow oscillations pass through it, and quicker tremblings.
Perhaps this is something like the experience of listening to Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s string trio, in which chords very gradually turn into other chords through a span of almost three-quarters of an hour, the instruments moving and sliding individually into place. Just intonation rules (‘plainsound’ is the composer’s term), and as an instrument reaches its goal there may be beats, quickening to a standstill. The gentler backward-forward motion of chords comes from how the piece proceeds, as if rocking on its feet as it prepares the next steady step. It also has twin supports in the two composers mentioned in its title: Schoenberg for the harmonic progression, taken from an example in his Structural Functions of Harmony, and La Monte Young for the slowness, the tuning and the glow.
One effect of the deceleration is to release modal flickers from Schoenberg’s exercise, and for that reason – as also for the sustained aura somewhere between melancholy and exaltation – the piece could be placed alongside a mass by Guillaume Dufay.
To quote the sleeve note: ‘There are moments of great calm, of sudden beauty, of agitation, of distress, of startlement, all in a place like nowhere else.’
7 Frank Denyer: The Fish that Became the Sun
another timbre at149
One thing about the almost hour-long single work on this record – and perhaps this is a strong Denyer characteristic – is that it is not an example of something. It is not in a category. It is not even between categories. It is outside categories altogether. It shows little affiliation to western classical traditions, and it is decidedly not world music. It brings together eighty-seven performers, but not to create an orchestra; we have, rather, a loose collection of groups and soloists playing in differing combinations, some of them appearing only briefly. One might imagine a village coming together to take part in a rite or festival whose meaning is divulged only insofar as we hear it. Some people bear conventional instruments (violin, sitar), while others bring what they can: pipes from a disintegrated organ, bits and pieces of percussion, their own voices and clapping hands and stamping feet. A couple of children drop by at one point.
The violin gets things going, with a hesitant solo of grief. This sets off all sorts of other sounds here and there, and now the imagination might suggest a forest of birds, some near, some further off, but all of them individuals – though many of them, too, referring in their separate songs to how the violin began. Something of implacable force intrudes. It might be a thunderstorm; it might be police come to break up a display of anarchy. Its sound is brassy, insistent, repetitive, tritone-heavy. The forest recovers, differently. Or the anarchy revives another way. And again is silenced. This is where the children have their say, their song. They do not have the answers, but they certainly have the questions, their nursery rhyhmes looping back to: ‘What will you do?’ and ‘What will we do?’
What will we do, indeed, to reach anything like this equable patchwork population, in which experts and the untutored have equal rank and value? Though written in the 1990s, The Fish that Became the Sun was brought to performance only last year, in concert at Huddersfield and, before that, in the studio for this recording – or rather, in several studios, where different parts were recorded to be assembled later.
It is odd that the conditions of pandemic music-making should have been thus foreshadowed, but that is only one respect in which the work speaks to our current world. ‘Songs of the Dispossessed’ is Denyer’s subtitle. His ending comes when a barrage of drumming is audibly hushed to reveal a distant gleam from cornets. Performers closer to us pick up the tones of celestial peace. The violin returns with its threnody, but is calmed. The far-off sound is gently embraced and tested. A faint trace of the old brutality skims across, leaving, and the bass note of everything is quietly discovered.
6 Frank Denyer: The Boundaries of Intimacy
another timbre at148
A woman quietly croons. Her voice slides slowly down and up, or holds a note, or else from two makes a tiny song. (This is Juliet Fraser, who always touches the edges between art and second nature.) A child, a girl, takes a path of her own, sometimes seeming to answer the woman, very occasionally coinciding with her. A violin is there, too, a third colour in the gentle braid – gentle, that is, except for a couple of moments where the woman croaks a scream. These are three voices, moving back and forth, sometimes passing over one another, as they slip in arcs around the lip of an abyss.
Frank Denyer calls this piece ‘Mother, Child and Violin’, and goes further, in his notes for the recording, by suggesting that the instrument might be offering the voice of the father, real or surogate, to one side of the other two. But we might want to take a step back and hear the ensemble more abstractly. Certainly the piece is a play – and if Samuel Beckett had been a composer, this is very much what he might have written. There are no words, but the gestures work like words, not just in how they are repeated but, more to the point, in how they act and interact, as questions, responses, warnings, voicings of interior urges, and in how the short speeches are set off from one another, except where they slightly overlap. This is, indeed, music almost without counterpoint, and yet thoroughly contrapuntal in the rich ambiguities contained in what is being said.
Most of the works here are from the last couple of decades, the latest – and most startling, most powerful of them – being the composer’s String Quartet 2, written more than fifty years after his first venture in the genre. Here again, counterpoint is barely present; when vocal and percussive sounds are added, as often they are in Denyer pieces, it is as part of the mix. The strings play together – without vibrato, partly to strengthen overtones – and it is hard to tell how many are involved at any one time. There are long, slowly changing, siren-like glissandos and, in the second part of the work, a motif (C–A–B–G) that is not so much a theme as a magic formula. It crops up again in the slightly earlier work that gives the album its title: a solo for flute, with an occasional very faint background of electronic tone – separate, distant, yet vitally keyed into what is, again, a drama. The gripping performer is Jos Zwaanenburg, for whom Denyer composed the piece.
All these works, with their natural timbres, their non-exclusive palettes (with breath sounds important) and their monophony, situate themselves in a limitless world, where Japan and Africa remain above the horizon, with only the weakest possible sense of a European viewpoint. This is true also of two pieces in which Denyer uses or transforms instruments from those non-European cultures: two utterly different versions of a composition for koto (Nobutaka Yoshizawa) and Frog, a lament for sneh, an African-inspired bowed instrument having a belly covered in lizard skin and an extended viola neck (Elisabeth Smalt, who is also the violist of the quartet, the Luna, heard in String Quartet 2). Everything here is song, and theatre, and utterly direct, and clear.
5 Morton Feldman: For John Cage
Darragh Morgan / John Tilbury
You have to find the time for this. An hour and a half, almost. Uninterrupted. Not to be interrupted. And it would have to be the right hour and a half. First thing in the morning. Or perhaps late at night. Before regular time has got going. Or after it has started to recede.
You also have to find the space for this. The room. The chair, the sofa, where you can sit, whether alert or lying back.
Then let it go. Violin and piano, to and fro. A rising interval, a falling interval, a rising interval, a falling interval. Not exactly repetition, because the rhythm is wobbling – repetition, then, that is not sameness. One speaks; the other answers. But the answer may be repetition, again repetition that is not sameness. Half a dozen repetitions or so, and the image will change. You may, at first, expect that an image that has gone will come back. But it probably will not. You may really want to have some image come back: a violin harmonic glowing from out of a piano tone, a touch of sul ponticello gruffness with which the violin comes near speaking, how the piano in this three-note descent is softly but surely warmed into sounding, how the violin is fragile and yet persists, how the two just now fold quietly together. But it probably will not.
For this is one of the music’s lessons: irretrievability. And there is another here: indifference, how the music is not attuned to your desires. The music is not listening to you.
It will go on, at the same gently troubled, untroubled pace. You will, after a while, come to wonder, or to expect, or to fear, that the end may be coming soon. Then it will come. The train that was passing you, wagon by wagon, has gone off into the distance. The place in which you were has gone, like a tent drawn up from around you, leaving you in open emptiness.
You will want to go back there. Not right away. No, not right away. But some time. You will want to be there again. Repetition. But not sameness.
4 Liza Lim: Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus
Liza Lim’s is music in the raw – not that it is crude, rather that, even though it will very evidently be shaped with intense care, by the composer and by her performers, it sounds undeliberate, going as it will, free. This impression comes partly from how lines wander aside from the beaten path of regular twelve-note temperament, partly from how counterpoint sounds unengineered, often surprising, partly from a particular understanding of form, and partly from how instrumental sound is extended in highly developed ways that seem, paradoxically, natural.
Listen, for instance, to what Lim and Alban Wesly draw from the bassoon in the solo piece Axis mundi of 2012-13: muliphonics like tuned throbs, glissandos that curve in the sky. Such sounds come across as natural in at least three different ways. They let us hear the instrument’s body, of wood and air. They connect with the musicianship of folk players. And they link this sophisticated art work also with the calls of animals. It might not be entirely wrong to imagine this music as coming from a virtuoso frog.
Lim’s closeness to nature in this sense is a feature of her music generally, and is certainly present here in the title piece, which she wrote for Klangforum Wien three years ago, and in which the free-flowing counterpoint is as important as the sounds. Many composers have used the analogy with landscape to indicate how their music more wanders here and there than proceeds from beginning to end, but with Lim one is invited irresistibly to scan different environs, different habitats, populated by different creatures making their different calls.
Extinction Events starts with a moan from trumpet and horn in unison, which wakens the clarinet and then a waldteufel (a small wooden rattle of a kind Lim uses often for its rapid clicks and drumbeats). In a clearing we find a piano, but then our attention is taken by an oboe and a faintly jazzy trumpet in the distance. So it goes on. The violin announces itself from the back of the hall, maintaining a grainy low E half-sharp on its detuned bottom string with the marking ‘like an oracle’. (The score is available on online via the composer’s website.) Soon, and later, the violin will emerge as principal soloist in registers more normal for it, notably in the work’s fourth movement, a dialogue with percussion.
There is altogether the feeling that the twelve instruments are creating a natural environment, somewhat as a not dissimilar group did in How Forests Think (2015-16, recorded on HCR 13CD). It is only if one takes into account the title, as well as the movement titles (‘Anthropogenic Debris’ for the first) and Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s introduction, that one has to adjust the image. This time, then, we are not in a forest but perhaps on a beach scattered with bits of plastic. Yet Lim’s music gives even this the freshness of life. And her finale, based on the dawn chorus of coral fish off the Queensland coast, sounds more natural than what one can find on the web of the real thing.
3 Trio Accanto: Other Stories
Wergo WER 73932
A man of many years is singing the Japanese cherry-blossom song ‘Sakura, sakura’, accompanied by saxophone, piano and percussion. The instruments take up the theme in the manner of a Bach chorale, with a tinge of Kurt Weill. A ridiculous quickstep breaks in – ‘Berliner Luft’ – but just for a moment, leaving more Weill in its wake. Further variants follow in fragments before a return to the chorale version. The piano suggests we are in a dream sequence. A ditsy fifties tune leads to a jazz moment, overtaken by growing clamour from the bass end of the piano and a tam tam. But it’s O.K., everything settles down – except that its settling takes far too long, long enough for there to be still a little curious life in the thing. Can this really be Helmut Lachenmann?!?? With himself taking part in the performance!?!!
Yes indeed, and, er, yes indeed. Having overturned almost all the conventions of the western classical tradition, Lachenmann finds one left standing – or two or three, in close proximity. One is the notion of œuvre, of consistency and identity. Another is that of intention. Until early in this century Lachenmann’s output could be understood as ever enlarging our understanding of instrumental technique and prowess, of form, of beauty, of historical continuity. Where does Sakura mit Berliner Luft, the work described above, fit into this?
One answer could be that it does so precisely as an exception, to be explained by its origin in 2000 as a piece of children’s music, Sakura-Variationen, a six-minute version without the Berlin air that extends the duration to ten. However, to make a whole project out of this material – Sakura mit Berliner Luft in 2008 and a compact solo piano offshoot from this, Berliner Kirschblüten, in 2016-17, where the hamonizaion at first casts a melancholy cloud over the flowers – betokens something more than an occasional diversion, especially when we consider also another Lachenmann surprise of recent years, his Marche fatale, included on this album along with the misbehaving cherry-blossom triplets.
There are signals in these compositions from an older Lachenmann, in the beautiful matching of piano and percussion sonorities, or simply in the use of a group that takes its name from one of his works and its instrumentation from another, Allegro sostenuto. The players are, of course, close to the composer’s heart; the original Trio Accanto pianist was his second wife, Yukiko Sugawara, whose place has now been taken by Nicolas Hodges, playing as ever with direct authority and keeping a straight face through the gleefully frightful Marche fatale. Also, Lachenmann’s earlier music does not lack humour. Even so, it is impossible not to see these pieces as violating what their composer stood for – to which his response might be that he never claimed to stand for anything, except for truth to the musical moment. And so it is now. Even integrity must be called into question, if it rests only on matters of style.
The disc might have been designed to provide refractions of the Lachenmann items. Opening with Sakura mit Berliner Luft, the programme goes on to Martin Schüttler’s xerox, which sounds a bit like a remix of what we have just heard, albeit with electronic gadgetry. Similarly, the saxophone glissandos of Yu Kuwabara’s In Between seem to be tracing the contours of the Marche fatale, and one does not whether they celebrate or bewail. Only Michael Finnissy’s Opera of the Nobility makes its own case, strongly apart. Two movements of motivic patterns in cross-rhythm, suggesting geometric tiling peered down upon through troubled water, are followed each by broken languorous phrases from Baroque opera – two musics poles apart, but, as one listens, revealing themselves as projections from the same source.
2 Musikfabrik: Stille
Wergo WER 6862
In search of more Evan Johnson you might turn to this 2017 instalment in Musikfabrik’s series of miscellanies – more miscellaneous than most in reviving a piece of sixties hysteria (Anaparastasis III by Jani Christou) alongside Johnson’s broken filament (die bewegung der augen) and two works of an altogether different, emphatic power by Georg Friedrich Haas.
Sadly the Johnson is spoiled, in that its silences are achieved just by fading out the recording, losing all atmosphere; the line goes dead, not silent. And the same goes for the version on the composer’s SoundCloud channel. This is altogether ironic when silence, faltering, is so central to Johnson’s work, and needs to be there as strongly as sound. Having reached the SoundCloud store, however, you find a wealth of material beyond what the superb Kairos album provides – music from Johnson’s thirties included, whereas everything on the disc comes from his twenties. There is, for example, an orchestral work, measurement as contrition (many of Johnson’s titles suggest delicate resonances coming across from his reading, this time of Mary Carruthers), much of which has the sound of very careful scrapings, scoopings, scourings, sculptings in ice, or of the empty spaces thus created, but which comes to flower in instrumental birdsong. The subtitle ‘three canons’ might perhaps explain how certain notes recur and recur, though this is a Johnson feature, to be found again, for example, in Wolke über Bäumen for baroque violin, where what gently insists, among swoops and frailties, is the sound of open strings. But there may be nothing here more tender – in the senses of gentle, sensitive and near to pain – than the quiet sobbing of cello and high male voice in thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg (Old English poetry this time).
Going back to the Musikfabrik collection, the opening Haas piece, Ich suchte, aber ich fand ihn nicht, is another of his voyages through consonant and spectral harmonies by way of tritone junctures, but the other work, …wie stille brannte das Licht, is something else: an intensely gripping and moving song cycle, made for the extraordinary soaring, imposing and expressive voice of Sarah Wegener, who was so indelibly memorable in the composer’s opera Morgen und Abend. Haas sets one poem each by four poets, quite differently, though with one common feature in a melodic utterance almost as direct as in a nursery rhyme, even though we are worlds away from ditties. From Georg Trakl, done in short, syllabic phrases doubled by piano, xylophone and gongs, we go to a melismatic mountainscape with nasty things growing from beneath (words by Theodor Storm) and so immediately to hectic August Stramm. More often, there is preparation and transition in sections without words, to create one dramatic whole. After the Stramm, for instance, the singer is at the head of great harmonic sweeps with which the music regains stability, after which, that achieved, she herself regains definition through different vowel sounds on the way to the sheerly beautiful, quarter-tone-smeared lyricism of the finale, to a poem by Else Lasker-Schüler. All the way through, the interaction of voice with orchestra is thrilling – not least so in the third movement, wordless, where Wegener climbs with steady force to an apical sharpened D, at which point her sound seems to be taken over – and taken higher – by the woodwind. Unforgettable.
1 Evan Johnson: Forms of Complaint
Delicacy. Fragility. Tenderness, even. But all these uncanny. Touching but untouchable. Elsewhere.
Each work is decidedly itself, individual, while all plainly come from the same place, the same elsewhere. Each is lacking in rhetoric, having other business than to tell us, even, why it exists.
Music by Evan Johnson has appeared on records put out by soloists and ensembles here and there, and he makes a generous quantity available on SoundCloud, but now we have a portrait disc tracing the faint but distinct and certainly very intent tracks he places against time.
But which time? The definition of indefiniteness, the certainty in uncertainty – these are of our age. Half-present modal shadows and canonic interplay, however, suggest instruments and voices mumbling from the Middle Ages. Not much of the intervening half-millennium is at issue here – except, of course, where the construction of the instruments is concerned: a pair of bass clarinets in Apostrophe 1, a violin that is by itself in clutch and working with six singers in Colophons, three toy pianos (O.K., malconstruction in this case, their clackety action part of the music of Positioning in Radiography), and a set of crotales, of all things, in hyphen.
This last – metal crystals in ricochet for just a minute, including gaps filled with emptying resonance – possesses intense charm, a sense of bells from a miniature church. The music is quaint, exquisite, but search deeper (the entire one-page sheet music may be viewed on the composer’s website) and it hurts. Part of the piece is played directly with fingers or knuckles; this we can hear, but not feel the pain the performer must endure, striking these honed bronze edges.
Apostrophe 1, offering twenty-three minutes of shuffling sound from those bass clarinets, might appear the most daunting item on the disc, and yet with repeated listening, which its seeming unconcern paradoxically invites, it becomes thoroughly engaging and – change a consonant – haunting. The duo replicates that of Billone’s 1+1=1, but Johnson’s way with it is completely different. At a level where the tones are shadowy brushstrokes hardly emerging from the actuality of fingerplay and intakes of breath, the two players burble to and fro through the occasional small triumphs of ascent, togetherness, or stability. The music is more or less diatonic, smooth but friable-smooth. and wandering. Now and then a tiny squiggle will seize the instruments’ attention - an exotic mordent near the start and then much later, a rising shape (is it Wagner? is it Paul McCartney?) around the halfway mark. “All communication,” the subtitle tells us, “is a form of complaint”; hence the album title, “Forms of Complaint.” These bass clarinets seem to be getting along well enough, but of course their communication is not only with each other but to us, and Johnson seems to be using “complaint” in the medieval sense of “lament.” The piece reaches an apogee – a sustained high note, held in agreement – and seems to end there, fittingly. However, there is a short second movement that, broken by pauses, as Johnson’s compositions often are, suggests nothing has been achieved.
But it has.