Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pleased to announce a new site for my music writing; please follow this link.

Friday, June 27, 2014

consider it unnameable


The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink, clamoring to become visible.
Vladimir Nabokov

Another way to approach the thing is to consider it unnameable.
Francis Ponge

Architect and sound-maker Darius Ciuta has joined with Bruno Duplant on three duo releases to date; the two documents offered here, released closely together earlier this year, clarify how simpatico the pair are, how effortlessly they work with near-invisible materials in dark, dark waters.

Ciuta resides in Kaunas, Lithuania, employed as an architect. Like Lance Austin Olsen, who came to experimental music from many years as a painter, Ciuta followed a similar trajectory, his sound experiments beginning in the 90s cassette culture under the noise nom, Naj. Olsen came to mind for another reason - the two share a practice of meticulously reducing their sounds by a self-limiting means of sound production, and a sensibility that privileges minute particulars over overt shapes and forms. Even the titles of Ciuta and Duplant's releases are acronymic and runic, yielding no textual clues about the music.

Duplant, by my last count, has appeared on about 30 releases since I became aware of him in 2009. Prolific, to be sure, but also as recondite, where personal/biographical information is concerned, as can be imagined in these exhaustively linked-in times. I have amassed much of that improbable output, and think Duplant's best work can be found in the projects that connect him to playing partners of like-minded temperament and aesthetic biases.

As I said, that is the great strength of these two releases, as distinct and divergent as they are, at times: within the context of a rather severe micro-sound continuum, (G) W (3) is, measured against Shed I, luxuriant, aqueous, and occasionally serene. Shed I, even with location recordings that include the by now de rigueur barking dogs/sloshing water sorts of narrative signposts, is a work of impressive, insistent severity and reduction. Close listening, and time, bring the overall shape into focus, invisible edges and patterns emerging, and one is struck with how the duo's melded sensibilities barely hint at discrete parts. In a fashion, the work and its authors are unnameable.

(G) W (3)

Shed I

Sunday, June 8, 2014

i don't mean that much can be explained

The Unwonted Beauty of Laurence Crane’s Chamber Works 1992 – 2009

In the sense of transparence,
I don’t mean that much can be explained.
George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous (1-22)”

I offer a few lines of my favorite Objectivist poet advisedly – in these few lines I find as fine a distillation of what composer Laurence Crane is up to in this generous and overdue constellation of chamber works as any I might manage. These 20-odd pieces are kindled with an adamantine clarity and transparency, the sort of blue fire rarely heard in contemporary composition outside of the Wandelweiser collective.

But then there is Oppen’s last admonitory line, and its aptness to Crane’s work is perfect -anyone who is struck, as I was immediately upon hearing my first Crane composition last year, by the embarrassment of harmonic beauty and architectural rigor throughout these works, will soon sense another, recondite quality to the music. Composer Michael Pisaro refers to this quality as “quietly crazy”, owning a beauty that is “hermetic” and “fragile.” Contained within Crane’s elemental materials there is much that cannot be explained, something necessitating that I use that often inappositely used word, ineffable. I find the suchness of Crane’s music eludes explanation despite immersion and repetition; this is unusual in my experience. However much I might welter and flail when setting out to write about many of Crane’s contemporaries, there eventually comes some sort of hook on which to hang a few ideas. I have lost track of how many times I have heard these mainly miniature-scaled pieces, and yet I cannot tell you precisely why I agree with Pisaro that this is music at once subversive and ordinary, recalcitrant and inviting, frugal, even abstemious, yet sounding like a gift offering generous clarity and transparence. Experienced this way, Crane’s compositions are koans, another model of concision and clarity, where both conceptual rigor and poesy rule, contradictions and dualities obtain, and the listener, confronted with all this, is invited to, essentially, get over it.

The chamber works are not without occasionally distinct referents, even seeming melodic and harmonic echoes, however transitory – I hear Feldman, Satie, Peter Garland, Thomas de Hartmann’s Gurdjieff works, reaching way back, Early Music, and, most saliently, Howard Skempton, who inspired Crane to compose music based in tonality. His transparence, to return to one of Oppen’s bare-bone qualities, is manifested in these intermittent evocations of his predecessors. “I take to my room and let small things evolve slowly,” Satie said. Crane has done so as well, outside of any spotlight, with only a few available releases of his work, prior to this one.
Crane is most rigorous in subtracting any elements in a piece that might obstruct the direct experience of the ineffable; in this way his music owns a humility that brings to mind for me Jurg Frey, whom Crane apparently admires a great deal. There is humility in how improbably patient Crane is in his rhythmic and harmonic development. There is humility in the melding of sly humor and rigorous beauty, especially in the piano works. There is humility in Crane’s fealty to the most basic elements of composition, coupled with their raw and rigorous repurposing, that has clarified his work since at least 1992.

It was in 1995 that Crane began his association with the ensemble Apartment House, whose core members are heard on this recording. For all I have said about the ineffable nature of this music, a few meat-and-potato observations: Crane likes the clarinet – only five of the pieces in this collection are sans clarinet, three of those being for other solo instrumentation (piano, cello and electric guitar, respectively); Crane likes Andrew Sparling on the clarinet – the pieces bearing his name, Sparling (two iterations) and Sparling 2000, serve beautifully as a spine for the first disc - they are programmed at the beginning, middle, and second-to-last place on disc one, the clarinet sounding a sort of simple dawn chorus, with each iteration shaded and colored variously by Sparling’s accompanists; there is no fast music; Crane, like Satie and Feldman, enjoys a wacky song title, e.g., I Saw Alexander Bălănescu In Safeways; and, as I have said, Crane holds a long, loving regard for the first principles of tonal music.

What can I add to clarify how I hear the unwonted beauty of Crane’s work found here? I heartily recommend, of course, that you live with it a while, available to the koan encased in its simple attractions. Crane’s chamber works, stripped bare and being of two realms – the implacably logical and the ineffable – endlessly moves these two realms close together and far apart, music at once clear, transparent, explaining nothing. This is a remarkable achievement, and my thanks goes to the Apartment House ensemble for its impeccable musicianship, Another Timbre’s Simon Reynell for his patient work in bringing this release to fruition, and, of course, to Laurence Crane, whose music has been an environment I have spent considerable time in lately, one that has changed me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

lance austin olsen's footprints

Last week musician / photographer / label owner Jamie Drouin asked me to contribute a text to a release paying homage to Lance Austin Olsen, a surprise gift to Olsen to be released as a free download on Drouin and Olsen's imprint, Infrequency Editions. A week later, and here it is!

The release, as you shall see for yourself, includes five pieces by musicians associated with Olsen, seven reproductions of Olsen's artwork that served as scores for the music, and my text.

It is a privilege to share this with crow readers. Lance Austin Olsen is a remarkable artist, I hope you will take the time to investigate his work.

Lance Austin Olsen's Footprints 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

place and presence

My suggestion is that we must recognize space as a vibratory system.
Toshiya Tsunoda, liner notes of O Respirar da Paisagem (2003)

I am confident, after spending time with Donato Wharton's 2013 release Place and Presence, that  Wharton concurs with Tsunoda's notion. The four pieces here are made of deftly threaded sine tones, high and low, and the sparest of location recordings. A restrained harmonic series is heard across the pieces, and whatever the shape of the wave, or its density, heard as the lightest of tracings - faint, translucent, and, until we reach the conclusion of the final track, without crescendo or capstone. I immediately thought of  two referents upon first hearing Wharton's sonic mizzle - Michael Pisaro's brilliant Transparent City cycle (although Wharton foregrounds his sine waves in a very different mix, to very different ends, than Pisaro), and the effect of faint impressions on fibrous tracing paper (as in the work of artist Ida Lawrence, above).

Putting forth some of the familiar plaited elements - airplane thrum, piercing sine skeins, spiraling turbines sounding like a radically reduced electronic variant of Ligetti's Lux Aeterna, electric white mist - might understandably evince a been there/heard that response. That is why I generally avoid trying to convey much about materials and their assemblage in blow-by-blow reports of sounds, and the like. 

Which brings us to presence - that is, Wharton's presence, which makes all the difference after all. He is guided here by what Howard Skempton called the virtuosity of restraint, offering both place and presence as tracings that draw us to listen more keenly for whatever details we might recognize. A lovely work.


Drawing: Ida Lawrence, untitled/2009, pencil/folds/light on tracing paper

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

zeit lassen

Is there repetition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition.
Gertrude Stein, Portraits and Repetition

I wrote about composer Eva-Maria Houben last Spring, observing that ... Houben (is) notable, however, for sustaining our attention in music exquisitely poised between a sound and its decay, a melody and its absence, and the vitality possible in repetition and iteration. Listening to Houben...I am faced with that fluid and volatile thing, my preferences, as Wallace Stevens said, between the beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes. One night, listening through 'orgelbuch' repeatedly, I sensed preference drop away, and I heard the presence of silence, and I realized how incredibly rare a thing Houben is creating. 

Spending time with Houben's Lost In Dreams - works for piano, released in June 2013 on Edition Wandelweiser Records, reinforces my appreciation for the depth of Houben's exploration of sound and just after.  Equally, in these six piano pieces played by Houben, I am alerted to another fantastic quality of her work - the relationship between what, on one level, is mere repetition, but on another level can be heard/felt as a gentle insistence. This is an insistence perhaps best conveyed in an indication found throughout an earlier Houben piano piece, go and stop - zeit lassen. In his liner notes for Ms. Houben's excellent Piano Music (Irritable Hedgehog), William Robin suggests zeit lassen might be understood as an indication that the pianist grant silence and forget about time as conventionally understood. It is indeed the sort of insistence one can experience in dreams.

Lost In Dreams comprises six pieces - Traumverloren I Für Klavier (2010), unfurling for over 30 minutes, its duration suited to Houben's clarifying this soft insistence embedded within mere repetition; and five dedicatory pieces of much shorter duration, bearing the titles in memoriam - Mussorgsky, Enescu, Schumann, Liszt and Messiaen. These brief epitaths privilege the presence of silence as much as any of Houben's works, with a surprisingly spry turn in the Enescu piece, sounding a little reminiscent of some of Cage's toy piano naïveté. 

How is repetition - perceived by many as an irritant when present in art (Stein suffered this criticism constantly - her essay, from which the above quote is lifted, is in part  a response to her detractors, one worthy of a zen master's "slap" to the errant novice during dokusan) - also heard as the quality of granting or allowing time, and silence, to be present? 

I've no idea - I only know that when listening through Lost In Dreams, my thoughts kept returning to a line in one of Rilke's Sonnets To Orpheus I copied and recopied years ago from Poulin's translation:
 Though he works and worries, the farmer
never reaches down to where the seed turns
into summer.
The earth grants.

I have always loved the choice of grants, or in German, zugeben, a lovely turning word, conveying how nature, in her manner of operations, really works, despite the repetition of work and worry. This is why learning that Ms. Houben indicated zeit lassen in her piano work grabbed me - grant time, her work seems to insist, there is no such thing as repetition, simply making music that grants time, sound, and silence.

Anyway that is the way it is. And you hear it even if you do not say it in the way I say it as I hear it.

Lost In Dreams

Italicized quotes from Stein, Portraits and Repetition

The earth grants.

My thanks to Michael Pisaro for providing the word zugeben.