Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
Dominic Lash double bass
Patrick Farmer percussion
Sarah Hughes zither & piano
1 Taylan Susam for maaike schoorel (realisation #1) 5:30
2 Elusion (improvisation) 21:09 youtube extract
3 Taylan Susam for maaike schoorel (realisation #2) 6:05
4 Eva Maria Houben Nachtstück (outdoor realisation) 33:37 youtube extract
Total Time: 66:21
1-3 recorded at Oxford Brookes University, January 2011
4 recorded in a wood near Hathersage, Derbyshire, September 2010
Interview with Dominic Lash
“I'm not sure I could explain why but recently, working in more pared-down contexts, I have found it preferable to have the discipline of a score rather than to improvise.”
The music on Droplets includes both improvisation and realisations
of scores. As a player how does your attitude vary across these two disciplines?
The answer to this depends, of course, on the musicians one is improvising with or the score one is performing. I'm not sure I could explain exactly why but recently, when working in more pared-down contexts, I have found it preferable to have the discipline of a score rather than to improvise. I usually like to have a certain openness in free improvisation, whereas in a "reduced" musical situation a score can provide a focus and prevent the music becoming geared mainly towards the production a particular type of soundscape or mood; such situations can quickly result in my losing interest.
The single group with which I've done the most freely improvised concerts in the last year or so (which doesn't mean that many! - most performances are still with more transitory combinations of musicians) is the trio with John Butcher and John Russell. I don't know of any scores which I think would be more productive for that group to engage with than to improvise freely. I don't have the right background or training to perform densely notated music, so that isn't part of what I do; the closest I get to that at the moment is Alex Ward's quartet Predicate, for which he writes some relatively thorny themes, but the emphasis is still very much on improvisation. It does seem that I'm now playing scores with musicians with whom I might in the past have improvised in a more minimal fashion - such as Angharad Davies or Patrick Farmer. I don't know if that marks any kind of trend or just a shift of interest on my part, though I think Patrick has had similar feelings. Certainly it meant that the improvisations on this CD were an unusual thing for me to do at the present time, which made them interesting to me.
The scored pieces are by Wandelweiser composers, who you have performed a lot in the past couple of years, and that ethos seems to affect the improvised piece as well..... And yet at the same time for me much of the music on the disc doesn't correspond to the popular stereotype of Wandelweiser music - i.e. small sounds amidst oceans of silence. Do you think of yourself as a "Wandelweiser musician"?
I think there are 2 questions here. The popular stereotype of Wandelweiser music is, as you say, a stereotype. Certain pieces written by the composers that make up the collective, both in the past and now, would more or less fit that stereotype. Many others wouldn't... There might have been a move away from such music (comparing Michael Pisaro's releases on his Gravity Wave label to some of his earlier compositions, for example) but I'm not confident of a general trend: Jürg Frey's music has never fitted such a characterisation, while Radu Malfatti's often still does. So the diversity of music in what seems at first glance to be a very narrow compass is a big part of why I continue to be interested in and excited by it. It certainly gives one things to think about, but it is first and foremost wonderful to listen to - not that I believe, of course, there is any such thing as "just music"! My continued involvement with the music produced by the group has come about because it is stimulating and beautiful, and also because I have found the people involved a very welcoming bunch indeed. But many other people have a far longer and deeper involvement than I have. If I'm thought of as in some way part of a Wandelweiser "family", that would make me very happy, but I wouldn't myself want to claim any particular status by declaring myself to be a "Wandelweiser musician".
“The continuum becomes the whole of all possible sound, a kind of white noise I suppose, and any musical composition or performance is "cut" out of this material.”
Environmental sounds obviously feature to a huge degree in your realisation of the Houben piece 'Nachtstuck', but are also present - though less dramatically - in the improvised piece 'elusion'. Does this embracing of surrounding 'noise' as part of the music go back to Cage, or does it have a different history for you (field recording, Michael Pisaro's work or whatever)?
In a concert presentation of this kind of music extraneous noise is absolutely inevitable. Clearly on a recording, one has a range of options, either attempting to minimise it, to accentuate it, or something in between. Cage is an important part of the conceptual background here, and field recording must come into it as well, though I don't actually know a great deal about contemporary field recording (beyond Chris Watson) - certainly nothing approaching Patrick and Sarah's knowledge of the subject. The idea that most resonates with me, actually, is Antoine Beuger's concept of cutting into the continuum. He talks about it in an interview in the Ashgate Companion to Experimental Music that James Saunders edited. Inspired I suspect by Alain Badiou, Beuger takes the mathematician Richard Dedekind's idea of defining a real number by "cutting" into the continuum of all possible numbers, and applies it as a metaphor for the creation of music (a metaphorical use of what is already a metaphor, which appeals to my English literature background!). The continuum becomes the whole of all possible sound, a kind of white noise I suppose, and any musical composition or performance is "cut" out of this material: music is made by a kind of carving out, rather than a building up from basic materials.
(It occurs to me that this might be a fundamental philosophical difference between
the Wandelweiser composers and many of those usually classifed as Minimalist, despite
the fact that in ordinary language Wandelweiser music is clearly "minimalist".) Hence
environmental sounds are just another part of the continuum and in no way in conflict
with the musical sounds - nor, I hope, are they merely atmospheric cushioning.
The outdoor performance of 'Nachtstuck' involves a rather extraordinary sonic narrative, as the sound environment goes through a number of dramatic changes while you are playing. Could you describe this for us, and how it felt at the time as you carried on playing? Had you anticipated
that this sort of thing might happen, and at the time were you aware of how it would sound?
The most obvious and dramatic event, both sonically and in general, was the rain. It certainly wasn't part of the plan to capture the piece during a rainstorm! As I mention in the liner notes, rain doesn't do good things to wooden instruments... The plan was simply to record the piece outdoors; we were hoping for a rain-free window. But when the rains came, some way into the piece, they weren't especially heavy so I decided to keep on playing, hoping it would just be a brief shower. It turned out to be a little bit more than that, but never quite got heavy enough to make me decide to abandon the performance. I had some idea of how it would sound, but only vaguely... in fact, that was the main tension during the recording for me: balancing wanting to look after my instrument with being really curious as to how the recording would sound!
In addition to your interest in Wandelweiser and minimalist music, you are also involved in several quite fiery jazz-based improv groups with the likes of Alexander Hawkins and Alex Ward. Does this make you schizophrenic, or do you feel a connection across these very different areas - do they seem to you two aspects of a single passion?
The short answer to the last part of your question is "yes". I've never felt any real difficulty moving between these different areas, they're all just things that excite me. As I said in one of my earlier answers, the main question for me is how to get the best music out of the different musical situations I find myself in. It's par for the course nowadays for musicians to have very diverse interests, which often overlap only partially even between musicians who work together often. Asking Alexander Hawkins to play Wandelweiser music just isn't going to be the best application of his talents and interests (though actually he did play with the Set Ensemble once, and did so beautifully of course). I would, if you don't mind, like to pull out a couple of implied things in your question: that the difference between these areas is one either of "firiness" or the proportion of "jazz" in the music. Both these things may sometimes be true but to an extent after the fact. The only band I'm in that is explicitly set up to be full-on and noisy is Alex Ward's Predicate, and that draws just as much on rock as on jazz for its inspiration. (I should perhaps say here that Alex Ward, besides being one of the most remarkable musicians I know, has a knowledge of music that is probably the widest and most unclouded by fashion or prejudice I've ever encountered.) Alex Hawkins does think of himself as very much in the jazz tradition, but that for him is a tradition that includes the work of groups like the AACM from Chicago bang in the middle. And of course the AACM's music, back in the day, was not infrequently criticised in terms that sound rather familiar to those applied to the Butcher/Durrant/Russell group fifteen or twenty years ago, or to the work of improvisers inspired by Wandelweiser and related musics more recently: that it was unemotional, cerebral, not enough rhythmic momentum, bafflingly quiet and uneventful, etc, etc. Michael Pisaro in fact notes hearing the work of the AACM as an important influence on his development. I suppose what I'm getting at is that, while I don't deny that there is sometimes a feeling of two (at least!) "camps" in which I operate, the musical inter-relationships are many, and it's never as simple as "quiet" versus "loud" music. Another way of putting it might be that it goes back to my early listening to experimental music (which wasn't actually that early, I mean late teens/early twenties) where the most important musicians to me were Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, John Cage and Iannis Xenakis. I think the combination of those four names still pretty accurately describes the shape of the musical area I wish to be involved in.
“This music appeals to me as an improviser both because it can at times be a relief
from my usual thought-procedures while playing, and because it can also intensify
those kinds of thinking.”
You rightly refuse to categorise the Wandelweiser and non-Wandelweiser sides of your activity as "quiet" versus "loud", and that sets me thinking about the ways in which the world of 'post-reductionist improv' (for want of a better phrase) and Wandelweiser music are coming together. There's been a fair amount said about the ways in which Wandelweiser is affecting contemporary improvisation, but little said about how the influx of players from an improv background may be affecting the Wandelweiser composers. But for me this coming together is having positive effects both ways. I think improvisers bring a quality of edge and unpredictability to the table when they play Wandelweiser, which I welcome. Do you see it like this at all?
I think I do see it like this. I'm not really qualified to talk about what effect
the increase in numbers of improvisers playing Wandelweiser music might have had
on the composers because I wasn't aware of the music before that point. But I certainly
think it's something that they recognise - I spoke to Manfred Werder about this recently.
He commented on this very fact, how for years it had only been classical musicians
and the composers themselves that had played the music, but that now there were all
these improvisers interested in it... For myself much of the interest, as a performer,
lies in two, apparently opposed, areas. On the one hand it is exciting to play this
music because of its difference from improvisation, the satisfaction of being given
specific tasks to carry out and attempting to do so to the best of one's ability,
rather than always worrying about "should I play now?... what should I play?... should
I stop playing?" and all those other thoughts that, for me, are crucial to improvising.
But on the other hand a large number of the pieces (increasingly so with more recent
compositions, I think it's fair to say) call upon exactly those kind of decisions,
but in a radically reduced way. In a piece by Stefan Thut that the Set Ensemble played
recently, each musician simply had to play one pitch and one noise over what we decided
would be a 20 minute duration. The pitch, and whether the pitch or the noise should
come first, were specificed, but that was all. And so the question of when to play
was given a hugely magnified significance. Which one could also subvert but deciding
to play at predetermined times, regardless of what else was going on (which is also
a strategy that can be fruitful in improvising). All of this is a slightly roundabout
way of saying that this music appeals to me as an improviser both because it can
at times be a relief from my usual thought-procedures while playing, and because
it can also intensify those kinds of thinking.
“So, so very good indeed...”
“The CD in question is another in the most recent batch of vaguely themed Another Timbre releases. Named Droplets, the disc is credited to Dominic Lash, Patrick Farmer, Sarah Hughes, Eva-Maria Houben and Taylan Susam. The last two names there, obviously are the composers of three of the four tracks, with Lash performing on all four of the pieces here, playing double bass, and with Farmer (acoustic turntable) and Hughes (chorded zither) on the first three. The first and third tracks then are different trio realisations of Susam’s score For Maaike Schoorel, the second is a group improvisation, and the fourth and final track, clocking in at a little ever half an hour and half the CD’s total running time is a remarkable solo realisation of Houben’s Nachtstück for solo bass. I was in attendance for the trio works, which were recorded in Oxford.
The Susam score performed twice by the trio is particularly wonderful in its simplicity. It is a fairly open work that presents the musicians with little clusters of numbers, which they are free to choose from, that dictate the dynamic and frequency that each musician should make a sound of their choosing. The dynamics indicated range from fairly soft to extremely soft, sounds can last no longer than three seconds and Susam, while asking ideally for ‘discrete events’ requests that musicians play together and overlap their particular clusters of sounds as much as possible. So the work will then pull the music made into small swells of extremely quiet sounds, some of them repeating slowly within little windows of time. Its a fascinating score in that it manages to control how the overall feel and shape of the music will sound without ever dictating instrumentation, particular sounds or the number of performers. On the day, the trio made two versions, both of which appear here, but both quite different. For the first realisation, somebody (I forget who but I seem to remember it being quite a spontaneous decision) suggested that instead of ‘playing’ their instruments in a manner that might be expected of them, they each chose to blow directly into them, one way or the other, so creating little clouds of whispery exhalations, each one slightly different as the air was captured differently, the bass sounding unsurprisingly deep, the turntable (which had a contact mic attached I think) quite bright and plasticky, and the zither full of the humming resonance caused by blowing on the strings. The end result is a lovely piece, very simple, extremely elegant and thoroughly human in its realisation.
The second version of For Maaike Schoorel here is equally refined and beautiful, but more familiar sounds are heard, slowly bowed bass notes, the scratch and scrape of items softly rubbed over the turntable and the gentlest of zither tones, from the harsher (yet always very soft) squeal of a glass tumbler being turned on the strings, to other more familiar bowed sounds. This music, typical of the Wandelweiser collective of composition that Susam is a member of alongside Houben has a wonderful stillness to it, and yet the little islands of soft sounds that do appear, as simple as they are, seem to harbour whole worlds of sound and timbre. The lengthy silences that span out between the clusters seemingly cleansing the ears afresh each time.
The trio improvisation is also a very quiet, subdued affair, with Farmer resisting the urge he has often had of late to throw the music off at more disruptive tangents. Things trickle and creak and hum away, and for this track the door to the drama studio space used for the recording was deliberately opened, so the gentle sounds of a leafy part of Oxford on a Sunday afternoon- passing aircraft, distant cars, the wind on the trees, the odd bird creep in and innocently flood the silences in the music. This track stands out from the others here simply through its improvised origins, sounding much freer and obviously open to wider possibilities. The recording, and particularly the mastering here is exceptional, with the external sounds sitting precisely where they belong, distant but present, and the mix between three quite intimate sets of instrumental sounds beautifully balanced.
The recording of Houben’s Nachtstück then, is something else again. This piece is very lovely in itself, a kind of slow meditation on the double bass perhaps, collections of softly bowed notes in small groups separated by lengthy silences. I have heard Dominic Lash perform the piece a couple of times, the most recent in Glasgow but a little earlier last year at an intimate performance given in the conservatory of his Oxford home, an event that had a strong impact upon me and which I wrote about here. Simon Reynell was also at this performance, and was moved enough by the mix of Dom’s playing with the sound of rain and wind bustling around the small glass conservatory to suggest that Lash record a version of it outdoors, which the pair set out to do in September last year, in a small wood in rural Derbyshire.
Right from the outset of this wonderful recording it is clear that the elements are determined to play a part in the recording. The wind roaring in the trees above and around bursts into the piece and remains present throughout. The bass has again been captured beautifully though, and when its little group soy harmonic clusters appear they are always clear, often competing with the weather, and particularly after a few minutes when the heavens open and rain hammers down, but always fully present. So Lash stood in the pouring rain and continued to play this extremely demanding half-hour long piece. On the recording we hear the bass, the wind and rain in the trees, and the rain splattering the floor all around, hitting the bass, interfering a little with the microphones but not enough to spoil the enjoyment of the recording. Also present are birds twittering, despite the inclement weather, aircraft passing, the horns and roars of nearby passing trains, insects buzzing close to microphones and, quite wonderfully, the occasional calls of nearby sheep. We often hear the sound of wind, rain and nature layered together with separate recordings of instrumental sounds on CDs these days, probably far too often, but very rarely do the sounds exist together in the same recording naturally. This version of Nachtstück then becomes a collaboration between the composer, the musician and the environment, which in theory every recording of the piece will be, but here the environment really makes its presence felt. Its a stunning work, superbly composed, studying harmonic and melodic progressions, performed wonderfully, and all together a remarkable feat of endurance as much as anything, but also a beautifully complex, detailed mass of sounds, whose presence together feels both absurd and perfect in the same moment. If, like me you just take huge joy from the act of listening, from discovering the sense of place in recordings, from allowing your imagination to run wild this piece, and this album as a whole is an essential purchase. So, so very good indeed.”
Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear
“Droplets, a project apparently led primarily by Dominic Lash, brings together three musicians from the Set Ensemble for three trios and a solo, or one improvisation and three interpretations of scores by composers from the Wandelweiser collective. The musicians are Dominic Lash on double bass, Patrick Farmer on percussion, and Sarah Hughes on piano and zither, and the composers are Taylan Susam and Eva-Maria Houben.
Taylan Susam wrote 'for maaike schoorel' in 2009, and the three musicians here offer two different versions of that short score, lasting around five or six minutes. Very quiet, gentle sounds take place, interspersed with light, airy silences, in a way that is certainly minimalist, but above all natural and serene. Strange, unexpected sounds, often extremely quiet, are rubbed, blown or scraped across surfaces in ways which are hardly conventional or expected. A truly unusual sonic material emerges, forming a unique and serene soundworld which is both meditative and airy. It is also profound and intense, in spite of the very low volume of these interpretations, something which augments the feeling of relaxation and poetry which this very delicate piece contains. The second realisation of the Dutch composer's score is probably less repetitive and minimalist, though the sounds are just as strange, and the silences just as long and significant, but the lack of strict, mechanical repetition somewhat dilutes the power of the first realisation. Nonetheless there is more relief and variety, and a richer soundworld is created.
The second piece, 'Elusion', is an entirely acoustic improvisation played by all three musicians and lasting twenty minutes. Bass, zither and percussion are superimposed, creating a variety of delicate, sensitive strata in ways that are always measured, but often quite intense. If silence is less prevalent in this piece, and the volume a little louder than usual, the influence of Wandelweiser is still felt in the powerful, quiet, calm and intense attention that characterises this improvisation. Not to mention the technical reproduction of sounds and noises which were part of the recording environment, and which are preserved in the mastering of the piece. There is a very assured kind of spatial equilibrium between the superimposition of different starta (the rubbing of drumskins, the bowing on the bass strings, the timbral exploration of the zither) and a radical silence. This contrast doesn’t take the form of a confrontation between “the full and the empty ", but of an endless continuity in which the transitions are achieved across passages of solo or duo improvising. 'Elusion', which lasts twenty minutes, pulls us into an extraordinary and as yet unheard universe characterised by a sense of unreality that is similar to that of many compositions by the Wandelweiser musicians. A world where time is abolished, where sound becomes space, and where composition is more akin to architecture (whether the music is composed or improvised, I don’t think this distinction makes much sense in so-called reductionist music). In short, this is a very beautiful improvisation.
“This is the best work I've ever heard by a member of the Wandelweiser collective”
So now to the main course: because if I very much enjoyed 'Elusion' and to a lesser extent 'for maaike schoorel', the most beautiful piece on this disc is undoubtedly the magnificent realisation of 'Nachtstück', a work written in 2007 by the German composer and organist Eva-Maria Houben. 'Nachtstück' is originally a piece for solo bass, but for this realisation, Dominic Lash and Simon Reynell decided to record a half-hour version in a wood in England, in the rain. The rain, as well as the wind and the rustling of leaves which it provokes, have a huge importance and acquire a gripping emotional power. To this are added sporadic interventions of cars, insects, birds and sheep. For his part, Lash, with the help of his bow, explores the full range of the bass’s strings; every register is deployed with short notes that rise out of the potential silence and the actual rain. Correspondences seem to emerge between the registers of the instrument and the intensity, with each bass note becoming stronger, and similarly the double-stops, while the treble notes become quieter until the harmonics are lost amidst the wind and agitated leaves. In any case, if the sound environment of the wood is in itself quiet and serene, the environmental context appears well-suited to exploring the emotional properties of the double bass. Each note moves the body of the listener in its entirety, and sets off numerous unexpected emotions and sensations. This is the best work I've ever heard by a member of the Wandelweiser collective, but this is certainly not just due to the score itself. Because if the composition knows how to deploy an extremely rich emotional terrain with a singular warmth, depth and intensity, then the outdoor realisation and the virtuosity of Dominic Lash unlock all the possible emotions, passions, humanity and poetry that can be found within the score.
If listening to the two realisations of 'for maaike schoorel' and the improvised piece 'Elusion' is sometimes arduous and requires a great deal of attention, then the wonderful interpretation of 'Nachtstück' seems much more accessible, even for those who aren’t used to the works of the Wandelweiser collective. The Set Ensemble, which Dominic Lash founded, certainly creates unique spatial soundworlds, and rich and delicate poetic sonorities throughout Droplets, but it’s the fantastic long piece 'Nachtstück', with its dramatic and lyrical power, which really captured my attention and completely overcame and overwhelmed me. Highly recommended, Droplets seems to me to be the most successful in this new series of discs released by Another Timbre in the wake of John Cage’s music. Moreover Droplets, with its radical use of silence and extended techniques, and its use of an open-air recording environment, seems to be the most fully representative descendant of the famous American composer.”
Julien Heraud, Improv-Sphere
“"Droplets" is even better, containing an improvisation, two versions of a piece by Taylan Susamm ("For Maaike Schoorel") and Eva-Maria Houben's "Nachtstuck". The first realization of the Susam work involves soft, rushing sounds that seem wind-driven though I take it that's not the case. They kind of zip by, almost like sped up versions of car sounds (though maintaining a deep pitch), interspersed with silences. The second take features each musician's instrument as a recognizable element filling more or less the same "portions" of the score with sound. In both instances, a lovely, somber mood is generated. This is, I believe, my first exposure to Susam's music; would like to hear more.
The improvisation, titled "Elusion", is just wonderful. From the initial airplane hum to the steely rustles like metal shavings being disturbed, through delicious low tones and on. Really every moment seems vital here. I saw Dom a few times in the last couple of weeks performing Pisaro's music and was, as always, very impressed; perhaps I focus on him unfairly here, but his playing sounds great, really gluing things together. I guess you could say there's a "wandelweiser" feel in play--it's quiet, spacious and rather linear--but there's also something very flexible here, a certain give and pull that's very enticing. Hard to describe! But great.
Houben's 33+ minute piece (an extract) is performed outdoors, through the rain, by Lash. The downpour is there from the get go, the deep arco drones welling up from the wet in almost stately fashion, like a slow, slow marche funebre, before transforming into sets of scale-like patterns interspersed among others. I'm not sure how I would have felt about the piece sans precipitation; perhaps other plein air sounds would have sufficed. But the rain really does sound fantastic and swathes the bass wonderfully. Whatever, it's lovely to listen to, as is the entire disc. Highly recommended.”
Brian Olewnick, Just Outside
“Bassist Dominic Lash, percussionist Patrick Farmer and zither player Sarah Hughes are members of The Set Ensemble, formed by Lash to perform works by the Wandelweiser collective and related experimental music. Composers Taylan Sousam and Eva-Maria Houben are both members of the Wandelweiser group. There are two contrasting versions of Sousam's "For Maaike Schoorel" here, the first being made deliberately "different" by the musicians opting to blow into their instruments rather than playing them conventionally. Compared to the piece's long periods of silence typical of Wandelweiser, the occasional interjections from the instruments tend to sound most like the stirrings of a sleeping beast. For the second version, the instruments are played conventionally, but it is just as subdued as the first. On "Elusion," a long improvisation sandwiched between the two versions of the Sousam piece, the trio sound as if they were still in "Wandelweiser mode" as it contains prolonged periods with no great activity; an extended dialogue between percussion and bowed bass in the closing minutes only serves to highlight how restrained it has been previously.
In stark contrast, Lash's outdoor realisation of "Nachtstück" by Houben is the outstanding track here and one of the more extraordinary pieces of 2011 or any other year. It recalls a similarly amazing track from Dark Architecture (Another Timbre, 2008) which captured a performance by Max Eastley and Rhodri Davies that was unexpectedly interrupted by a firework display outside. Occupying over half of the album's playing time, the 33 minutes of "Nachtstück" find Lash playing solo bass in a small wood in Derbyshire. Being outdoors, Lash is accompanied by many extraneous sounds such as wind blowing through trees and aircraft noise. Most importantly, throughout most of the performance his resounding bass is accompanied by the sound of heavy rain falling on trees, bass, microphones and Lash, creating a stunning impromptu duo between musician and nature, one which conjures up vivid images of the scene with the bassist doggedly carrying on regardless. Yes, there is a good reason why this album is called Droplets.”
John Eyles, All About Jazz
“I'm going to begin this review at the end of the disc in question – with the final, solo recording by Dominic Lash. I first heard Eva-Maria Houben's 'Nachtstück', the piece in question, performed by Lash, at the house concert which launched The Set Ensemble (the Oxford-based group Lash mentions in his liner notes, dedicated to performing the music of the Wandelweiser group). This performance was, in fact, my first encounter with Wandelweiser, which had somehow, up to that point, slipped under my radar; in the year since, its profile seems to have risen more and more, with concerts, recordings, articles and debates, proliferating in both real and virtual space, as an increasing number of listeners become aware of this body of work by a group of composers with often very different practices, but a core of shared concerns. As I heard it in Oxford last summer, 'Nachtstück' came from the deep and ancient world of the drone, the basic element of much 'folk-music', that held sound which can seem to go on forever, and which creates an exquisite interplay and dialogue with silence once it stops - and then, sometimes, re-starts. 'Nachtstück' also became about the environment in which it was played - not only the relaxed, yet private and intensely focused atmosphere generated by one person performing in front of ten people in a domestic setting (a return to 'chamber music' in the original sense of that term), but also the sounds of a fly buzzing around the room and landing on people's arms, on furniture, on the roof and walls; those classic, lazy, mid-summer sounds of distant lawn-mowers and car engines and voices; and, most significantly, a summer rain show, which, as I noted in a review written at the time, seemed an especially fortuitous unconscious echo of, or homage to, Taku Sugimoto's 'Live in Australia'. Perhaps it was the newness of this experience, of the shift between foreground and background, music and environment, and the eventual mesh between them – music as part of environment, environment as part of music, neither as necessarily more important than the other – but I still hold Lash's performance of 'Nachtstück' that day as a special hour, un-fraught by the difficulties of more busy urban environments (those by-now clichéd ambiences of Tokyo and London and Berlin - sirens, the whooshes of passing cars, creaking chairs, throat-clearing, stomach-rumbling – or, most memorably, another performance in Oxford in which a piece by Stefan Thut disappeared into the sound of a drunk sing-along next-door). Lash, as he explains in a useful online interview with Simon Reynell concerning this release (to be found at the Another Timbre website), doesn't see a conflict between such environmental uncontrollables and between the frequent near-invisible delicacy of the sounds produced in the music; nor does he see these uncontrollables as mere ambient 'cushioning' for the music. Rather, adopting a metaphor turned metaphor from Antoine Beuger, both (largely pre-determined) music and (indeterminate) environmental sound are part of the same cloth, a cloth of all possible sounds, out of which one 'cuts', or has cut for one, the sounds that one finally hears. In the case of the environment into which 'Nachtstück' is placed on this recording, such concerns are perhaps less paramount than they might be in such a dramatic instance as the Stefan Thut performance: as Reynell notes in his own comments on this release, it was the house concert with which I began this review that inspired the version that has eventually been released (Reynell was a fellow attendee), as a kind of amplification of the small environmental details which had so struck him in Oxford. In other words, the location was chosen for particular sonic reasons, rather than simply being imposed as the city-centre location of a particular concert hall where a performance happened to take place. That there was again a rain shower is perhaps not surprising, given that this is England – perhaps it was even half-hoped for, as a means of adding another layer of richness and event to the piece, though the difficulties Lash faced in keeping his bass dry and un-damaged perhaps dispel that notion – and this is only the most easily-noted aspect of performing the piece outdoors. Whereas an increasing number of composers and improvisers have incorporated pre-prepared field recordings into musical settings (one of the most notable recent examples being the exceptional Michael Pisaro release on Another Timbre which was included in the first batch of the 'Silence and After' series, last year), or have presented untreated field recordings as something between music and document (work of this kind can be found, for example, on Jez Riley French's 'Engraved Glass' label), playing a piece outdoors breaks down the distinction between recording and environment, so that the music can fully exist as part of an outdoor setting. The logistical difficulties of such an operation are perhaps why it is not more often attempted – that, and the tendency for a kind of diffuseness to spread over the music, a kind of relaxation and lessening of intensity, sparked by the lazing-back sounds of birdsong and sheep and drifting flies that we are all familiar with from television and radio and BBC sound-effects cassettes. This has been my experience, at any rate, but I'm happy to say that Lash, as anyone who has heard is recording, or better yet, seen him live, is a musician of exceptional focus, and well able to deal with the distractions of a rustic setting.
So this music, which I've been skirting around for many sentences now, how does it unfold (and for that matter, gabby as I am, what of the tracks with Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes that make up the rest of the disc)? One problem I've addressed, or at least hinted at, in reviews of Wandelweiser music and concerts published in the previous issue of 'eartrip', is that of a too un-critical attitude towards the external sounds which can often end up providing much of the 'content' of an otherwise very quiet composition. At its crudest, this would mean (to re-iterate what I realize I’ve just said at the end of the previous paragraph) experiencing a piece of music in much the same way one would experience a tape of bird-song recordings, or of lazily-buzzing flies and distant baaing sheep in a summer meadow – a pastoral idyll that falls back too easily on generic tropes of 'relaxation', 'harmony with nature', etc. The answer to this problem is that the fascination in the work lies precisely in the interplay and relation between the 'natural' and 'human' elements; not so much that the wind, or the rain, or the buzzing flies, are 'instruments', external objects moulded and shaped for aesthetic purposes by a controlling human agent in much the same way as a double-bass, but that they are ‘framed’ by the human sounds to become something other than they would if simply heard unadorned. Listening to the recording, of course, reveals other layers, theory melting into and becoming enriched by physical practice. The first appearance of Lash's bass, against a steady white-noise background of wind blowing in trees, sounds like a muffled, deliberate call, the after-echo of a horn signalling across the hills – there is that ancientness about it, connected no doubt to the deepness and the droning nature of the sounds the bass is made to play. Perhaps that's a little too fanciful (I've just been reading Robbe-Grillet's 'Nature, Humanism and Tragedy', and no doubt he'd chide me for my too-easy humanising of nature, my projection of fey subjective whimsicalities onto the world of objects). Disregarding metaphor or analogical methods of description, then, we can simply say (hopefully without opening another can of worms), that there is something very beautiful about the way that a particularly delicate high harmonic is at once almost drowned out by a sudden swell of rain, the distinction between musical ‘foreground’ and ambient / natural ‘background’ existing as something malleable, rather than a line set in stone. Something beautiful too about the way the bass notes seem to be acting as some kind of commentary, or complement to the rain shower, while at the same time carrying on as before, not so much ignoring the context as becoming wholly subsumed within it, content to take place, to be placed, within it. And something (thankfully) rather funny (this isn’t all po-faced wonder in the face of nature) when a low bass tone ceases, immediately followed by the protesting ‘baa’ of a put-out sheep.
So now, as promised, back to the start of the disc, to the three pieces in which Lash is joined by Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes (these three roughly corresponding, in total length, to the solo ‘Nachtstück’). Two realisations of the same piece by Taylan Susam bookend a 20-minute improvisation: the presence of the improvisation significant because Lash has grown increasingly wary of approaching so-called ‘reductionist’ music through improvising parameters (though improvisation remains central to his work elsewhere), preferring the discipline, the task-based play between rigidity and looseness, freedom and constraint, that the very particular scores of Wandelweiser composers offer. Can one, though, tell the difference? Could one, in a blind-fold test, distinguish between the ‘composed’ and the ‘improvised’? Perhaps there’s a certain following of linear logic that’s more present in the improvisations than the compositions (somewhat counter-intuitively, one might think): a thought can be finished, a line of questioning followed, taken for a walk, without coming up against a notational instruction that says ‘now move onto something else’. This doesn’t mean ‘gabbiness’ – the music is far quieter than that I’ve heard Hughes and Farmer make on more recent occasions, where Farmer, in particular, has acted as a kind of sonic agitator, suddenly letting out bursts of un-expected noise, often accompanied with very definite physical actions and movements (abruptly emptying a tub of compost onto a turntable to produce screes of feedback, for example). But the popping, tapping, rasping manipulation of (I’m guessing here) a plastic cup, does set things at an edge un-imaginable during the previous few minutes, when extremely high, delicate sounds came out like a little chorus of minimalist mice. The chorus from the film ‘Babe’ gone Wandelweiser, perhaps – or, mice as painted by Maaike Schoorel, reduced to little blobs and blurts of colour and shade on a white ground.
Schoorel is the dedicatee of Susam’s piece, and there two ‘takes’ at the piece, allowing us to consider the degree to which a score such as this is fixed and the room for interpretation as the main shaping force. Whatever one decides, the notion of ‘playing’ a graphic score seems to me an exciting one, a technique that could be opened up so that one could go, say, to The Tate Modern, and ‘play’ scores by Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko or Cy Twombly – or, for that matter, by Claude Monet and Louise Bourgeois. We have a number of layers, or levels of relation, here – Schoorel’s paintings are abstracted versions of photographs, detail taken from itself so that it appears as another kind of detail, not specific, yet forced towards particularly resonances or suggestions by the painting’s titling (presumably, the original photograph was of a twilight). Susam uses a graphic score without providing a ‘translation’ of the painter’s work into music, an aural equivalent, or something that exists entirely on the coat-tails, as it were, of another artist’s art. He creates a piece which exists in relation to it and in dialogue with it. As he notes in a short essay on his blog, “In my music, titles function either along the lines of the above, or are dedications. In fact, 'nocturnes', is my only title so far that is not a dedication. In my text about the audience I distance myself from the idea of a consistent 'humanity' as addressee of my pieces. In that light, it is easy to understand that my pieces bear titles such as for joseph kudirka or for blinky palermo. I wrote those pieces for a person - when that's established, who cares about the title, about the name?” In that sense, though the piece should not be considered subservient to its apparent ‘subject’ or dedicatee, it does set up a net-work of relations (and this is the sense in which it is ‘political’) : firstly, between the composer and the dedicatee (whom he/she may know or not know – the dedication could, as in the cased of ‘for louis couperin’, be to someone long dead), and thirdly, between the performer, the composer, and the dedicatee; fourthly (and fifthly, sixthly, etc), between the listener(s), critic(s), performer, composer, dedicatee. I’m reminded somewhat of Frank O’ Hara’s ‘personism’ – except, of course, that music cannot have the direct address that words can – there is nothing inherent in a non-vocal sound that says ‘I am addressing this directly to you’. This doesn’t mean we have to fall into the trap of a too-lazy ‘universalism’ (along which lines The Beatles are ‘great’ because their music contains some mathematical formula or universal human subject that makes it relevant to everyone and anyone (such views tend to be exclusively western-centric and inherently culturally imperialist)). But it’s nothing quite as direct as O’ Hara’s sexual metaphors (which in any case don’t quite fit the very public world necessitated by book publication, fame, exposure, etc): the piece of music is not really a “lucky pierre”, sandwiched between reader and writer. One online critic describes Schoorel’s paintings as “almost silent”. Of course, one immediately clamours, all painting is silent, whatever Kandinsky’s Blavataskian synaesthesia might otherwise suggest. Similarly, all music is ephemeral, non-visual (particularly if one closes one’s eyes when listening, so that the sounds I’m hearing are not, say, associated with the computer screen in front of me or the rather drab curtains in my room). But it is a communication – sound does always tell us something, even if not always as a direct propositional statement, an easily-got-at-gobbet of information. And perhaps that communication could take place between two art-works – between a painting and a composition, between that composition and its realisation – a kind of personism of art-objects, as well as of persons; a work that, because it concerns itself exclusively with its own “immanent logic,” allows itself a much more intimate mode of address than the loftily human(istic) ‘great work’ template allows – which actually allows in a more human space than the ostensibly ‘humanist’. As Susam puts it, “After the task [of composition] is completed, I consider the result not a message with a specific address, but rather the possibility of an occurrence that will always be embedded in a certain situation. The meaning of this occurrence can only come about within an essentially social situation. And, as Christian Wolff has it: one person making music and one person listening already makes for a social situation. At the heart of the matter, I compose for a scene of two.”
I think, in the context of a CD review, we’ve drifted off-piste, off-point. And I’ve probably barely talked about the actual sounds of those two Taylan Susam pieces. But you can find that out for your self. And so let’s end there.”
David Grundy, eartrip
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