rare and forgotten experimental music

Friday, December 23, 2011

John (Luther) Adams - Songbirdsongs

John Luther Adams is probably best known for being the less well known John Adams in the small world of minimalism-influenced contemporary classical music. While the other John (Coolidge) Adams has become one of the most widely performed contemporary composers in the world, as well as a highly respected conductor, John Luther Adams has had an equally long, though less well-recognized career.

Adams has been living in Alaska since 1978, and has been composing quiet, slow, minimal music there, reflecting the Arctic landscape around him. He's released a number of CDs on New World Records, New Albion (which has also released early music from John Coolidge Adams, furthering the confusion there), Cold Blue and Cantaloupe.

"Songbirdsongs" was Adams' first LP, released in 1982. As you might expect from the title, most of the material is adapted from birdsong. The pieces are all very much of a kind, sparse, slow, and quiet, performed on ocarinas, piccolos and percussion only. The music on this album is very different from Adams' later music which I have heard. While much of his work is glacial, featuring very slow development with a focus on harmonic movement and slow polyrhythms, "Songbirdsongs" suggests something of a meeting of Morton Feldman and Harry Partch.

The pieces here form a suite, with relatively little variation between them. Nothing deviates too much from its birdsong origins, with percussion largely consisting of arrhythmic background to the bird-like ocarina and piccolos. Adams says in the notes that these pieces are not meant to be transcriptions, but rather evocations - focusing too much on the details of a perfect transcription would sacrifice the musicality of the pieces, and make them less interesting. With the percussion providing atmospheric background, listening to the LP is like listening to straight field recordings of birdsong, the percussion evoking wind, background forest noise, and rushing water.

While the birdsong origins are extremely clear, "Songbirdsongs" has a very mysterious character about it. There is little melodic development, hardly any sense of rhythm, and lots of silence and very quiet sound. Morton Feldman's influence is evident in the static textures and dynamics, lack of development, and spontaneous introduction of new ideas and material. The pieces just start, float around for a bit, and end.

Standout pieces include the fourth track, "August Voices," which feature vibraphones and marimbas echoing, responding to and leading the piccolo birdsong. "Mourning Dove" also features prominent marimba, playing rolling patterns as a harmonic background for the ocarina's dove calls. "Joyful Noise" features a bass drum, frantic birdsongs from ocarinas and piccolos, clappers and bells, and is the busiest and most intense of the pieces on the LP. One gets the sense here of something disturbing a forest full of birds, or perhaps mating season.

"Songbirdsongs" was one of the later albums released on the always nifty Opus One Records. It's credited to just John Adams, rather than John Luther Adams, so presumably this was before JLA conceded the John Adams name. Of course, no re-release of this LP seems forthcoming, though the suite was performed very recently in New York City, here's a link to a NY Times article about it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Still going

I'm still around, just been really busy. Long distance move, starting a new degree, working, life..
Expect something new hopefully within a few weeks.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dickie Landry on CD & LP

Hurrah! Dickie Landry's fantastic Fifteen Saxophones album has been re-released by the very, very fine folks at Unseen Worlds records. I highly recommend everything in their catalog - only six releases so far, but all are fantastic, underheard gems. Their Elodie Lauten CDs are among my favorite re-releases of the past few years.
You can buy Fifteen Saxophones on CD or limited LP here. Only $10 including shipping in North America!

I'll try to have a new album up sometime next week.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Terry Riley / Pierre Mariétan - Keyboard Study 2 / Initiative (+Systèmes)

Terry Riley, as I have to assume anyone reading this site would already know, is one of the originators of classical minimalism. His 1964 composition "In C" is indisputably one of the classics of the 20th century.

"Keyboard Study 2" is from around the same time as "In C". Riley first recorded this piece himself on his Reed Streams LP of 1964 (there called "Untitled Organ"). It consists of a set of modules which the performer is to repeat as many times as they want before moving on to the next module, similar to "In C" and other pieces from that period like "Olson III" and "Tread on the Trail".

This particular LP was released originally on the great BYG label of France, which mostly released classic American free jazz and European psychedelic and progressive rock. Keyboard Study 2 / Initiative (+Systèmes) was one of the few modern classical releases on the label. Unfortunately it shares with all BYG releases a poor recording and a plethora of semi-official releases of dubious provenance and quality.

This seems to be the earliest recording of a Terry Riley piece done without Riley performing, and is also notable for being a very early European performance of American minimalist music. In 1968, when this was recorded, Riley wouldn't have been that well known yet, with his "In C" LP just having come out earlier that same year.

"Keyboard Study 2" has been recorded several other times over the years, though the number of recordings doesn't even begin to approach the dozens of recordings of "In C" out there. Riley's own version on the Reed Streams LP of 1964 was performed on an electronic organ, overdubbed, and sounds quite a bit like his later organ improvisations like "Persian Surgery Dervishes". That album was re-released on CD in 2007 on Elision Fields, and you can still buy it here, though it looks like it may be out of print again. Steffan Schleiermacher made an excellent, though somewhat loosely interpreted version in the late 1990s on MDG Records, with computer-controlled digital pianos, and there's another version on Stradivarius recorded just a couple of years ago by Fabrizio Ottaviucci.

This here version was performed by Martine Joste and Gerard Frémy, a french new music pianist of note, who I've also heard on an excellent recording of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano from the late 1970s. He has also recorded several other pieces by Cage as well as works by Luc Ferrari and Stockhausen.

This recording is particularly interesting for its production through overdubbing several different sessions, creating the sound of an army of pianos playing endlessly. Mostly the sound is purely textural, a dense drone of pianos, but sometimes individual lines pop out of the texture above the rest. The poor recording quality actually enhances the sound of the piece, blurring everything together into a beautiful, dense mess. It's without a doubt my favorite version of "Keyboard Study 2", even well eclipsing Riley's own recording.

The second half of the LP is a piece by Pierre Mariétan, called "Initiative (+Systèmes)" performed by GERM (Groupe d'Étude et Réalisation Musicale), a nine-piece ensemble, including Frémy and Joste as well as Mariétan himself. Mariétan came out of the serialist school, having worked early on with Stockhausen and Boulez, but by the late 1960s was writing frameworks for improvisation and similar chance-based pieces.

"Initiative (+Systèmes)" is along similar lines to any number of semi-improvised group pieces of that era. The sound consists of mostly short noisy gestures, atonal, though the pianos sometimes provide some rhythmic underpinning to the piece. That said, it's certainly not a bad performance, there are some rather interesting sections and events, but it's very much a piece of its time, and it's a somewhat odd choice for the b-side to "Keyboard Study 2". It's worth a listen, but I doubt it'll become anyone's favorite piece.

This rip is from a CD edition of the album released in 1998 on Spalax Music, a label that has mostly released obscure Krautrock re-issues and other psychedelic musics of the late '60s and early '70s. I think this recording is still available at the moment as an LP reissue on Get Back (Forced Exposure has it here), but I've found their releases to be very poor quality on the whole. This Spalax edition is well out of print, and the album is not available anywhere on CD or digitally right now.

Download 320 kbps mp3s + scans of liner notes (in French)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Malcolm Goldstein - Vision Soundings

Malcolm Goldstein is a composer and improviser with strong aesthetic ties to Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening movement, and he developed his work around the same time as her, from the 1970s to the present. Much of his music consists of his improvised "soundings", which are deep explorations of the different textures which the violin is capable of. He's very committed to improvisation, and the few compositions of his I've heard composed for other people to play also consist of frameworks for improvisation. He has CDs available on XI and New World Records.

Goldstein's work isn't chaotic, jazz-influenced free-improv. His improvisations involve playing one note for extended periods of time with gradual textural variation. It's similar to, again, Pauline Oliveros Deep Listening improvisations, and also brings to mind some of Alvin Lucier and James Tenney's work.

Side A of this LP, "Center of Rainbow, Sounding" is a live recording of a 1983 performance recorded by Phill Niblock at his Experimental Intermedia space. Goldstein plays a sort of screechy rapid tremolo on multiple strings continuously throughout the nearly 20 minutes of this piece, and scarcely varies the pitches he's using. Most of the change in sound comes from changing his bow position and technique. It's not exactly drone music, as it's very active, and the rapid notes never really blend together. It's an interesting exploration of the possibilities of improvised solo minimal violin playing, quite different from the approaches of, say, Tony Conrad or Henry Flynt.

Side B of the LP is "Vision Tree Fragment," a live piece from 1984 recorded at New York's Roulette. This piece has Goldstein drumming and scraping a maple tree limb. Similar to his violin soundings, Goldstein searches the maple limb for different sounds and textures, the sound shifting as he moves around the limb and varies his playing. He also sings long tones to accompany the maple limb, and varies his vocal textures by singing different vowels and such. It has the feeling of a ritualistic, shamanic ceremony. Neat stuff.

Vision Soundings was self-released by Goldstein in 1985. Some CDs of his have other recordings of his Soundings performances, but this LP is the only place these particular ones were released.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stuart Dempster - On the Boards

Stuart Dempster first came to my attention as a member of The Deep Listening Band along with Pauline Oliveros. As a performer, he played trombone on the original LP of Terry Riley's In C, as well as countless other new music albums, and is a master of circular breathing. Looking at his short bio on Wikipedia, he is also apparently credited with introducing the Didgeridoo to North America.

His own first album In the Great Abbey of Clement VI was originally released in 1977 and is still available on CD on New Albion records, along with a more recent CD from the mid-1990s, Underground Overlays From the Cistern Chapel. Both are fantastic albums of improvised drone music, based around droning trombones, didgeridoos and conchs (on a couple of tracks on Underground Overlays) interacting with the extremely reverberant spaces they were recorded in.

This album was recorded in 1983, and has a similar sound to his other albums, though a rather different approach. The music here is not about an interaction between Dempster and the space he's in, as it was recorded in a fairly ordinary sounding concert hall, but is rather about interactions between himself and the audience.

The first track, "Didjeridervish", was also recorded for In the Great Abbey of Clement VI, in a much longer version. It's performed, as you might guess, on a didgeridoo, and the name comes from the fact that during parts of the piece Dempster spins around, whirling dervish style, while playing the didgeridoo.

The second track, "Roulette", features some audience interaction, as they are instructed to sing an Eb drone. Over this, Dempster plays around with the harmonics of the drone on a trombone, creating a swirling, subtly changing mass of sound.

"Don't Worry, it Will Come" is a strange piece to listen to. It's a recording of a sound installation, the nature of which I can't quite figure out. In the liner notes for the CD Dempster writes, "With hoses hidden under the theater seats, the audience is, indeed, surprised." I think that means Dempster was blowing through hoses, with the other end under the seats of the audience, but I don't know. The sound of the piece ends up being comprised of random horn blasts followed by the audience laughing. Divorced from its installation context, it makes for confusing listening, but it's a short piece, and it gives the album some sonic variety.

The final piece is the lengthiest, the nearly 20-minute long "JDBBBDJ (John Diamond's Big Beautiful Brass Didjeridu)". This piece is named for the instrument which Dempster uses, a custom-made brass didgeridoo with a bugle bell at the end. This exceptional instrument creates strong, unusual overtones, and the audience was instructed to sing along with the low drone or the overtones, creating a beautiful choral sound, with fantastic harmonies and sudden swells. It's incredibly beautiful, and is well-worth the download alone.

This recording was originally released on cassette in 1986, self-released by Dempster, and was re-released on CD in 2001 on Anomalous Records, a great label which released some great experimental and noise music before sadly shutting down in 2004.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Stephen Montague - Slow Dance on a Burial Ground

What's this? Two posts in two weeks? And more coming!
I'm trying to make my posting a bit more regular, rather than the super-infrequent posts of the past. Another post is coming up next Sunday. I can't promise that I'll be able to maintain a once-a-week posting rate, but I'll definitely aim for at least one entry per month. Anyway, on to the music!

Stephen Montague doesn't seem to be a terribly well-known composer. I never see him mentioned in lists of post-minimalist composers, possibly because he's UK-based, though he was born and raised in the US. Maybe he's better-known in Europe, I don't know. I only discovered him because I was checking out every LP on Lovely Records I could find. No real internet presence either, aside from a bio and work list at his publisher's page.

Montague is one of the group of post-minimalist composers who combined elements of minimalism with romantic classical music, like John (Coolidge) Adams, Daniel Lentz, and others. He's got a number of CDs out, of which I have a couple, on ASV and Continuum Records. They're nice albums, some orchestral stuff, some chamber music and some mixed electronic works, and I would recommend them to anyone interested in the more accessible end of the post-minimalists, but this here LP is rather different.

Side A of the LP is taken up by the 24 minute piece which gives the LP its title, "Slow Dance on a Burial Ground", a tape piece constructed from electronic sounds, recordings of log drums, field recordings and folk flutes. It reminds me a little of Alvin Curran's early work, with its mixture of drones, electronics and field recordings, but Montague's piece here has a strong ethnic/folky element, what with the prominent flutes. It's a beautiful piece, static and textural, which sticks with a consistent sound and feel throughout.

"Paramell I" is the next track, for muted trombone and "muted" piano. Fantastic new music trombonist James Fulkerson plays the trombone, while Montague plays the piano, presumably muted with some fabric or something. Much of the piece features the two instruments playing in unison together, very fast staccato notes, sometimes with longer drone notes from the trombone. Surprisingly the sounds of the trombone and piano blend together, and it can be hard to tell which instrument is which, and when they play together it creates a nice combined texture.

"Paramell Va" (meaning Paramell 5, variation a) is a somewhat similar piece for solo piano, here played by Philip Mead. It features very fast staccato playing on the piano, alternating between high and low chords. I could again compare it to Charlemagne Palestine's Strumming Music, but this piece has a very, very different character. It's more melodic rather than textural, and not what I would call droney at all. It's minimalistically repetitive, but with a more natural, free-flowing character than, say, Philip Glass' piano music, with fantastic crescendos caused by the use of the sustain pedal.

This is a really excellent LP from an under-appreciated composer, and certainly the best work of his that I've heard. It was released on LP on the amazing Lovely Records in 1984, and is one of the very few items on that label that has never been re-released. Lovely seems to have been doing some archival releases lately, though, so maybe that'll happen someday.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Alvin Curran - For Cornelius / Era Ora

As a consolation for taking down the earlier Alvin Curran LP I posted, here's another Curran LP, though a very, very different one. For Cornelius / Era Ora has two pieces for piano, written in 1981 and 1986, respectively. It was Curran's first release of fully composed music performed by other people, his earlier LPs containing semi-improvised solo electroacoustic works performed by Curran himself.

"For Cornelius" is performed here by the great Ursula Oppens. It's been recorded several other times, by Yvar Mikhashoff, Eve Egoyan and others, but this recording is the first time it appeared, and it's a beautiful version of the piece. It was written shortly after the death of Cornelius Cardew, the great british composer and political firebrand. Curran has some additional notes about the piece at his website here.

"For Cornelius" is in three contrasting sections. The first one is a simple, pretty, Satie-esque little lyrical part, only a few minutes long. The meat of the piece is in the second part, a long droney work, reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine's Strumming Music, with very gradual harmonic motion, moving towards increased dissonance over the whole section. The third section is a short little afterthought, similar to the first part, and makes something of an ABA structure, contrasting these very different sonic worlds.

"Era Ora", unlike "For Cornelius", has only ever been released on this LP. It's performed by Ursula Oppens again, with composer and fellow MEV member Frederic Rzewski on a second piano.

"Era Ora" belongs to a relatively small set of pieces written for multiple pianos, here only two, but writing for multiple pianos seems to create some significant logistical problems. Pianos are big and difficult to move, so just getting two of them together on a stage or in a studio can be pretty hard to do. It creates a very unique sound, though, and allows for an extremely rich texture - just one piano can make a lot of noise on its own.

The piece begins with a jazzy little intro section on one piano, while the second piano plays tense pulses in the background. Slowly the pulses take over, and the jazzy element disappears. One piano keeps pulsing, sometimes using the sustain, and the second piano adds some higher pulsing occasionally as an accentuation.

It quickly becomes difficult to distinguish one piano from another in a textural piece like this. Like the second section of For Cornelius, there are some nice contrasts between sustained and non-sustained sections, particularly around the mid point of the piece, where the pianos are playing staccato chords which get beautifully washed out with the sustain pedal, then come back into sharp focus when it's released. Eventually the texture thins out somewhat, ending on a melodic, slower section somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of the piece.

Brian Olewnick, who often writes for AllMusic.com, among other places, has a good review of the LP here on his blog.

This LP was released in 1986 on the great New Albion records. Unlike most of New Albion's releases, it has never been released on CD and is long out of print, and New Albion seems to have wound down operations - doesn't look like they've put anything out in about two years - so a re-release looks pretty unlikely.