Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Free Radicals

Polarities (1983)

I'm a sucker for anything with 'Victoria University Electronic Music Studio' listed in the credits, from Mammal's discreet use of white noise wind effects to the most academic electroacoustic music. The first of these two LPs -- from collaborators composer Jonathan Besser, former Victoria University lecturer and composer Ross Harris, and Gerry Meister -- advertises precisely that, and recorded all in one day.

The eponymous track from 1983's Polarities opens the album with synthesiser and delayed and double-tracked flute, a characteristic combination from Harris's electroacoustic whakapapa (e.g., Inner Worlds' 'Fluchtig'). Midway through the track, primitive drum machine, distorted vocals, bass and electric guitar, and a much more organ-y synth, take the improvising Free Radicals into eighties Tangerine Dream territory, though perhaps with more unfettered zeal than their cold kraut contemporaries. Elsewhere they channel Laurie Anderson's 'From the Air' (on 'Space Music'), Vangelis's soundtrack work ('Summer Rain') and David Borden's Mother Mallard ('Water Music'), though all in an unbuttoned, breezy style.


You Know, We Can See Through the Roof of Your House



(i) (1987)



1987's mini-album (i) opens with what sounds like a pitch-shifted John Cousins marrying Eraserhead's Henry with Cabaret Voltaire as the wedding band. Second track 'don't ask' feels like Seventeen Seconds-era The Cure had been listening to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while first side closer 'my lips are moving' is a sort of lime and limpid green Fripp & Eno outtake. It's altogether a tighter and more rhythmic side than the second, upon whose black expanse the opaque, capacious 'Red Shift' sits, effing with the fabric of time.


Expect the Greatest Measure of Earthly Happiness


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Denis Smalley on Electroacoustic Compilations, Part Two

Singcircle - Mouth Music (1983)

Gregory Rose conducts the exceptionally talented 'Singcircle' avant-garde vocal group -- made famous through their performance of Stockhausen's 'Stiimmung' -- here paired with three slightly less overground electroacoustic composers.

Smalley's piece, 'Pneuma', is electroacoustic only in the sense that the voices and instruments are amplified. These are mostly tiny sounds -- scraping drums, finger taps, hisses and whispers, and resonant metal percussion, sometimes transporting the listener to an acoustically dead cave full of dripping stalactites and intimate witchcraft -- which could only translate through recording or precise amplification. 

Simon Emmerson uses stereo panning delays and other live electronic production techniques to extend the ensemble's voices to great effect.

NWW list favourite Trevor Wishart -- who also worked with Singcircle on his piece 'Anticredos' -- gets the team to make... well, frankly, a series of quite rude noises.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Denis Smalley on Electroacoustic Compilations, Part One

Fylkingen Electronic Music Competition 1975 Prizewinners (1976)

This little gem is the result of an international competition for composers of electroacoustic music, which was held in Sweden and judged by Dieter Kaufmann, Arne Nordheim, and Jan W. Morthenson. 

Denis Smalley's 'Gradual' is for clarinet, bass clarinet, trombaphone (clarinet mouthpiece in a trombone body) and tape. Smalley's electronic squirts squiggle like surgical crystal. Trombaphonist Kjell-Inge Stevensson's virtuoso oboedjeridoo-like performance combines percussive woodwind finger-tappings and animal growls with tremolo chattering background conversations, quite clearly stealing the show from Smalley's tape-speed manipulations and familiar latex-glass shatterings. 

'Siesta Blanca', from Argentina's Beatriz Ferreyra, is reminiscent of a contemplative version of 'Solitioude' by Fran├žois Bayle, jump-cutting between 'live' musics and electronics. From the folky accordion opening, we slam straight into minimalist drone, creating a mood similar to the anticipatory pause during the opening monologue of the 1960s 'Star Trek', just before the NBC orchestra takes it into technicolour space. Ferreyra's orchestra, however, is caught in an underwater Terry Riley time loop, a flock of flying brass whales, filtered and ringing. Exceptionally beautiful.

Philippe Menard's 'Reel-a-Phil' is both classically electroacoustic, and the most contemporary sounding work. It is almost unbearably exciting in parts: e.g., samples of tearing paper and splitting wood fibres speed up while a simple bass line increases in pace and pitch. There is great audio depth-of-field, complex psychoacoustic spaces are created: upstairs where the wood is being split, behind you where folks are chatting in brick hallways, across the street where the neighbour is chainsawing up firewood. Deflating balloonflies orbit yr skull, while an all-over-the-place exercise in directionless beatmaking on airbrakes is interspersed with amateur-hour contestants singing and dancing to bike horns and spoons. At times, this seems much of a manic master's thesis in electroacoustic technique and composition, while the closing of drone and small percussion is simple and powerful.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Computer Generations (1978)

What? You reckon the recent NZ electroacoustic that I've been posting is neither dry nor academic enough? Wrap your ear canals around these tracks and feel that tympanic membrane dessicate!

Actually, once you get past the first two very short compositional exercises by Godfrey Winham, this record will bless you with four luscious animatronic beauties.

Winham was a Princeton music theorist and composer, and one of the great-grandfathers of computer music, developing FORTRAN-based composition software all the way back in 1960. Vercoe and Gressel studied with him. And contrary to my insinuation above, Winham's works are not in any way 'bad' -- just very cold, and difficult.

Barry Vercoe, the only dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi on this record, became interested in the possibilities of computer music after studying composition and mathematics in Auckland, and went on to design faster, smarter and easier ways to compose on the computer. Vercoe's piece is also the only truly electroacoustic work on the album. 'Synapse for Viola and Computer' sits komfortably in the Kiwi Kanon, with Rimmer the closest komparison. The composition is just as it describes: a violist plays to a score written for his acoustic instrument, while the computer performs according to its own electronic score. It works wonderfully. The two 'performers' weave and dodge and embrace and run away from each other, and it feels fresh and alive. Extraordinarily, Vercoe was the founder in 1971 of the Electronic Music Studio at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I say 'extraordinary' because this is not a minor achievement in the world of electronic music, so why had I never heard of him? Like Smalley (who will be getting another post or two soon) he's operated for most of his career outside of New Zealand, but generally Kiwis love to claim every possible cultural hero, no matter how far-flung (e.g. Bill Culbert, who will be representing NZ at the 2013 Venice Biennale, though he's mostly lived in Europe since 1957; Len Lye, who left NZ for good at the age of 25; or Frances Hodgkins who also produced her best work after leaving permanently). He deserves to be better known at home. You can also have a listen to this record -- a serious classic of early computer music -- but there doesn't seem to be much else available by Vercoe. I'll keep looking.

Richard Hoffman gets an honourable mention as a part-time Kiwi. His family emigrated from Austria to New Zealand when he was ten years old, and he lived and studied here until moving to the United States at the age of 22 to work with Arnold Schoenberg. So, he spent some very important years here, and as I said above, I'm happy to claim him. 'In Memoriam Patris' is both grave and exciting. It sounds like classic electronic music -- as do the following works by Gressel -- which was a surprise to me, as prior to listening to this record, I'd been seriously prejudiced against academic computer music, for no good reason whatsoever.
 
Joel Gressel's first work 'Crossings' made me think of this synthesizer module, until I read the liner notes and saw that it is based on a 'spinning coin' phenomenon, rather than marbles or snooker balls. It could also remind the listener of Phil Dadson's sound works with clashing stones. 'P-Vibes' is possibly the most jarring of the works on the record, which brings us full-circle to the works of Winham.

My previous impression of early computer music was more along the lines of Godfrey Winham or Lejaren Hiller's experiments: interesting conceptually/not so interesting aurally. You will have gathered from other posts that I love the sounds of early electronic music (more so than digital-era electronic music) and that's what I love about these works. The Winham works are challenging and important historically and the rest of the album is exceptionally satisfying listening.


A Chaos of Delight [link removed: this recording has been re-issued on-demand from New World Records]

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Visions (1980) & Prisms (1985)

A couple more contemporary classical records, each of which has at least one electroacoustic piece. Well, Prisms actually just has a (seriously gorgeous) Ross Harris choral piece with synthesizer drone (and I don't think that really counts), but to make up for it, I've included a bonus Jack Body piece from another record, which is full-on electroacoustic. John Rimmer does the choir with electronic tape thing. Gillian Whitehead and Jenny McLeod represent the two polar opposites of seriousness. Full disclosure, these are all choral music. But by New Zealand composers! And they are gooooood.

I was going to include the New Zealand Composer Edition Vol. 3 - Choral Works -- mainly because it has the pink version of that funky cover, but also because it has works by Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead and more -- but was disappointed by how kind of ye olde fashionde it seemed. But if that one was less than impressive, the record that I lifted the Jack Body bonus track from was appalling, proving that electroacoustic music is a format which gets little respect. This live concert record by the National Youth Choir of New Zealand (which is imaginatively titled 'The National Youth Choir of New Zealand In Concert') features the premier of Jack Body's 'Vox Populi', which was written for the National Youth Choir. As if embarrassed for having performed this gorgeous mixture of choir, electronic and bird sounds, the concert -- and the album -- close with The Rainbow Connection.

These two LPs pop ('Visions' in more way than one: it's a wee bit scratchety at times but not too bad); they do some amazing things with harmonisin' on the inside o' mah brain.





Monday, January 23, 2012

Summertime Super-Fun-Pak! NZ Electroacoustic on CD -- Part Two

The final three CDs in the Jack Body-curated 'Electroacoustic Music by New Zealand Composers' series on CD Manu. All of the entries in this series, barring the Kim Dyett album, have covers taken from photographs by Theo Schoon of geothermal curiosities. I've been a bit cheeky here and designed a replacement cover for the Dyett album from the same series of photographs by Schoon.

David Downes - Saltwater (1988-1992)

Five of these eight works were composed as soundtracks to dance pieces, and as such contain more aggressively rhythmic content than the other albums in this series. All were composed when Downes was between the ages of 21-25. ‘Valley Mine’, ‘A Green Piece’ and ‘Saltwater’ use effected field recordings, white-noise wind and other classic and eighties cutting-edge synthesis techniques, but pick up some live-sounding percussion and midi-beats halfway through. If you are hoping for more traditional electroacoustic composition, skip right ahead to ‘Disquiet’, a conversation between what feels like improvisatory digital synthesis and a recording of a housefly buzzing round the room; for me the standout track on the album.

Black Noise 


Kim Dyett - Wallpaper Music (1982-1986)

The title track is not. at. all. what one would expect from a piece called ‘Wallpaper Music’, considering that term’s association with Satie and Eno. Jittery jumpcut sampling and synthesised horns, squeaks and burps, lead into John Cousins-esque spoken-word sections, tape-speed effects, shimmering Eventide crystals and quite lovely live guitar and singing. So maybe it’s wallpapering in the sense of that unintentional collage which one finds along heavily postered walls and bollards. ‘Song Cycle Nocturne’ uses the poems of Hone Tuwhare sung and spoken by soloist Rosalund Solas, with atmospheric electronics often mimicking the birdsong of the kokako, which sounds like traditional instrumentation mimicking electronic music! Very beautiful, very NZ. The final piece, ‘Flute Music’, is entirely constructed from recordings of the composer playing his own, self-carved koauau. Ghostly whistles, fragments of tunes, with little processing other than looping, stereo separating, and delay; much more what Satie and Eno had in mind, I believe. 

Making Small Holes in the Silence


Denis Smalley - Tides (1974-1984)

‘Pentes’ (1974) is, according to whoever wrote the Denis Smalley article on Wikipedia, one of the classics of electroacoustic music. But it's no joke. These are serious, complex soundworlds imagined by a rigorous master of the form. Sophisticated timbres are created from instrumental sounds in the isolation of the synthesiser, and in other sections, snatches of what sound like tapes of orchestral warm-ups mixed with white noise are slowed to a halt. There are also, as in many NZ electroacoustic works (like Dyett's), references to native birdsong, and even (like Downes') to bagpipe music. ‘Tides: Pools and Currents’ is a perfect audio accompaniment to Theo Schoon’s cover photograph of Rotorua mud pools, or an evocation of autochthonous echinoderms and cnidarians in their rocky puddles. Its sequel, ‘Tides: Sea Flight’ is uttered in the same tongue, but describes magnetically shifting immensities, rather than the small and self-contained. ‘Vortex’ jumps around like Dyett’s ‘Wallpaper’, then coalesces into skirling winds and distant chimes. Denis Smalley has been, for me, the greatest discovery from this series. New Zealand born and trained, his award-winning body of work has been entirely electroacoustic, and he deserves more recognition here both for what he has produced musically, and academically through his teaching and articles

Invisible Kinetic Sculpture

Monday, January 16, 2012

John Rimmer - Soundweb (1982)

Finally!

Been waiting to hear this one for ages, and it has truly been worth the wait.

Damn! It's that good!

Recorded between 1972 and 1979, this record documents the development of one of New Zealand's most important electroacoustic composers. From tape experiments to pure computer synthesis, and from electroacoustic sympathy back to tape experiments.

The title track, 'Soundweb,' in all its glory is like the big, sophisticated brother of Brent Carlsson's 'Gaga Who?', with its stereo-separated electric bumblebees blowing kinda blues, and laughing tin fairground clowns. The liner notes say that visiting trombonist James Fulkerson 'sparked off a wave of creativity wherever he went,' and it's fair to say this collaboration is inspiring. Fulkerson anticipates and reacts to treated tapes and loops of his own trombone: booming ring-modulated Rileyisms dropping back to lone Frippertronicised blerts. The electronics for this piece were recorded at the Recording and Electronic Music Studios at the University of East Anglia, where fellow Kiwi Denis Smalley was lecturer in music and later Director of the Electroacoustic Music Studio. More on him in a later post.

'Poi' is the only purely electronic work in this collection, and was created using early digital synthesis technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Experimental Music Studio. It is also documented on his CD Manu collection, 'Fleeting Images'.

'Colder Far than Snow' was recorded at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio, where Rimmer -- like Lilburn -- studied under Gustav Ciamaga. This considered work makes use of very spare early-electronic tones and textures, with mic'ed, amplified, and treated found object sounds.

'Compositions' '6' and '9' (for 'Piano and Electronic Sounds' and 'Soprano and Electronic Sounds' respectively) are amongst the most balanced of Rimmer's 'Compositions' series. Both electronic and acoustic sources are beautiful in themselves, and integrate naturally. For these works, as in the title piece, much of the electronic material is derived from treated tapes of their acoustic counterparts. '6' gets its kicks in electronic reverb sympathising with piano sustain, while soprano Heather Macdonald creates huge psychoacoustic spaces with her multilayered voice in '9'.

Highest recommendation, and thanks to contributor Tim for this.


Ground Bass of Hope