Wednesday, August 27, 2008

James Blackshaw - Litany of Echoes (Tompkins Square 2008)

Litany of Echoes
Tompkins Square 2008

Listen: The Past Has Not Passed

Prolific guitarist, James Blackshaw returns with his sixth album in four years and shows no signs of running out of ideas any time soon. Playing twelve-string guitar, (though he does play piano on the opening and closing tracks) Blackshaw is joined this time by Fran Bury, who adds a violin and viola to the mix. Blackshaw uses his own tunings, but this isn’t dry intellectualism – far, far from it – this is one of the most emotionally engaging albums of the year. The melodies on Litany of Echoes are so deep and rich that as the songs progress, any sense that Blackshaw is playing guitar disappears and the notes drip hypnotically into one another to create a beautiful tapestry of sound. A previous note will continue to ring out as Blackshaw deftly moves onto the next, leaving no space at all between the notes, just layers of harmony.

There is something intuitive about Blackshaw’s ability to move from sparser passages to dense walls of sound. On ‘Echo and Abyss’ – here the title reinforces the sense of what Blackshaw is playing – he begins with a simple melody on guitar, which rings out for long time, creating the echo and then over time mutates, develops, expands and draws the listener into the abyss, which is probably darker than anything than Blackshaw’s done before, yet this is at the other end of the spectrum from the dark, noisy, drone meditations of Keiji Haino.

Though, there is a definite droning quality about it - Bury’s violin on ‘Past Has Not Passed’ practically disappears in a forest of beautiful harmonies. With his playing, Blackshaw achieves a sort of portamenti effect (loose sliding between pitches) and the result is no less than captivating as he gently manipulates melodies to create subtle nuances, which constantly develop throughout the piece.

This sort of style, with such restraints puts Litany of Echoes more in line with the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass than the folk of Jack Rose and John Fahey. The whole thing is far more restrained than last years Cloud of Unknowing, but within those self-imposed limits, Blackshaw pretty much achieves all that anyone possibly could achieve.

As always with Blackshaw the title is well chosen – using the word litany to underlie the spiritual significance of the album in the same way as last years Cloud of Unknowing. It is certainly meditative and there is a definite feeling of ascension – but Blackshaw likes to keep his titles ambiguous, allowing for far wider interpretation. ‘Gate of Horn’ and ‘Gate of Ivory’ (Blackshaw’s piano pieces, which to give you some idea of the minimalism are just five notes repeated in a pattern) – refer to the gates through which good and bad dreams pass respectively. You could go on and on, I guess about various interpretations, but the fact that the album allows for such imaginative reading is for me an excellent thing in itself. Sure it can pass the time in the background, but for those that really listen, you’ll be richly rewarded. Litany of Echoes is a sign that the guitarist is maturing, his guitar playing has the same faultless, ethereal touch, but as a composer Litany of Echoes surpasses anything he has done in the past.


Bergman - The Silence (1963)

The Silence opens with a young boy asking his mother about a sign written in a foreign language. ‘What does this mean?’ To which his mother replies that she doesn’t know. And in those opening seven minutes, as the boy, his mother and his aunt travel on a train to an unknown country, Bergman expertly sets up that strange experience of being in a distant world, where everything around you is unknown and inexplicable.

The boy, Johan, is then placed outside when his aunt Ester starts to cough and choke and the door is closed on him. His curiosity takes him along the corridor for a series of brief glimpses into the other carriages, before he looks out of the window at the passing scenery and in a kind of dreamlike hallucination sees a series of tanks driving across the landscape.

The film takes place in a foreign called Timoka. There is a tremendous heat throughout the day, which lingers long into the night. The country appears to be either occupied or at war as suggested by the presence of the tanks, which add further weight to Bergman’s battlefield. The elder sister, Ester is ill and takes to her bed, whereas the younger sister, Anna tries to cool down by taking a bath. This arouses the interest of her son and she asks him to wash her back.

Bergman’s severity charges the film with such overt eroticism that almost everything becomes a reference to some latent sexuality, such as the boy puffing up his cheeks to make a faint screeching noise and then lying down in the soft cushions and raising his hand up into the air like a snake.

Then in a series of highly structured encounters, Bergman explores the degree of control each character has over another. These range from the comical meeting between the boy and the dwarves in one of the hotel rooms, to the formal encounter between Ester and the porter, to the sexual encounter between Anna and the couple having sex in the theatre.

Ester’s intellectual ambition is one form of control, but she is scared by her sister’s sensuality – the way Anna sleeps naked and picks up guys at a restaurant, but on the other hand, the only way Anna can exert some form of control is through these sexual encounters. She is also very much aware of the power she has over her sister and there is an almost incestuous attraction as Ester watches Anna undress to take another bath after dirtying her dress outside.

The boy acts as a sort of pivot between the two conflicting women. His innocent amusement guides him through the hotel, from rebellion (pissing in the corridor) to mischief (hiding the porter’s photographs) to curiosity (as he watches his mother go into a room with the waiter, nonchalantly telling Ester about it later without any indication of emotion). He is not fazed by his encounter with a traveling troupe of dwarves as they dress him, he doesn’t mock them or question them, but simply accepts them. In one of the few humorous moments in the film, the dwarves return from their show and pass Anna who is crying in the corridor. She stares at them in confusion and in a rather absurd, Bunuel-esque manner, each of them bows his head courteously to acknowledge her.

Human tenderness will always be coupled with human bitterness and although Johan’s actions appear naïve at first, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that even he has the capability to oscillate from one extreme to the other, liberty to repression, love to hate etc. etc. For the two women, neither of them are wholly satisfied with the life they are leading, each wanting perhaps a part of the others, but only becoming frustrated when they cannot have it and resorting to complex mind games in an attempt to dominate the other and exert some form of control.

All three display a desire to understand and their attempts (with the exception of Johan) inevitably lead to dispute. The two sisters have an especially strong desire to understand one another, except there are so many things which get in the way to prevent them. Perhaps that’s the point that Bergman’s trying to make - that these desires ultimately lead only to destruction… In the evening of the first day, Ester is listening to Johann Sebastian Bach to the radio while Anna dries herself in the open-doored bathroom. A few moments later the porter brings in tea. He recognises the music’s composer which he mentions in passing and shuffles out of the room. This brief display of knowledge, prompts Anna, who we presume didn’t know who the composer was, to spitefully relate an earlier encounter with a waiter to Ester, because she knows that is something, unlike Bach, her sister will not be able to understand.

Bergman’s exploration of the unconscious was extremely shocking at the time and people reacted so strongly that the director even received death threats and worst of all a feces-smeared piece of toilet paper. But within the starkness of Bergman’s images (photographed by the excellent Sven Nykvist) there is at its heart one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema of all time. The whole thing unravels like a dream and it is certainly one of the best, if not the best of Bergman’s so-called Chamber pieces.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Maja S. K. Ratkje - River Mouth Echoes (Tzadik 2008)

River Mouth Echoes
Tzadik 2008

Listen: Wintergarden

Maja Ratkje is a woman unafraid of experimentation. In 2002, she released, Voice, her solo debut, in which she elaborately manipulated her recorded vocals to create improvised compositions that were engaged with both creative noise and fleeting beauty. Improvisation is certainly the strongest part of everything Ratkje does and I’d go as far as to say that without this aspect, I’m not sure she would have achieved such powerful works. It’s not something that comes necessarily easy, but Ratkje has a long background in improvisation, from fe-mail to Spunk and working with figures like Frode Halthi and Jaap Blonk.

With River Mouth Echoes, Ratkje continues in this vein of experimentation and manipulation of sound, creating an a sort of overview of 20th century music that references Ligeti, Bartok and other eclectic, modernist composers. But at the same time, Ratkje seems to want to manipulate the instruments on each piece to such an extent that they become unrecognisable. Try making out Rolf-Erik Nystrøm's alto sax on the first track, for instance. It’s almost become a new instrument. It’s this method and creative exploration, rooted more in Jazz Improvisation and electronics than Classical music that gives this record its originality.

Ratkje has become so confident in her ability to freely improvise, using manipulated recordings in a more electro-acoustic than musique concrete fashion that she has crafted an album that is tonally very rich and conceptually coherent, but also highly diverse, and that in itself is a very rare feat. From the saxophone on ØX, to her voice on Wintergarden to the accordion and double bass on Essential Extensions to the viola da gambas on the title track, Ratkje takes pleasure in how far each instrument can be electronically exploited to produce something new and fresh. Brutal to melodic in one foul sweep.

This is difficult listening, not difficult like the free improvisation of artists like Derek Bailey or the abstract harmonic experiments of Nancarrow are difficult in the sense that they are extremely cerebral works, (for River Mouth Echoes is far more visceral in the same vein as Ligeti’s ‘micropolyphonic’ works), but difficult in the sense of being loud, noisy, chaotic and intrusive. There is great beauty behind this work, the kind that has the emotional power to rouse the listener, both shocking and seducing them at the same time.


Janek Schaefer - Alone At Last (Sirr 2008)

Alone At Last
Sirr 2008

Listen: Come On Up...

Janek Schaefer is a sound artist whose work often functions in a very specific setting, not so much breaking down boundaries, but re-establishing connections between sound and art, like on the recent Extended Play (Triptych for the child survivors of war and conflict). But Alone at Last is somewhat different. For a start most of it is recorded in a studio, but as with his other pieces, there are still strong concepts, which underlie its production and its raison d’etre. Each piece was written by Schaefer in response to a challenge to produce a piece of music for a compilation CD or installation. Because of this, Alone at Last is, perhaps one of Schaefer’s less cohesive albums in the sense that there’s no overall theme like 2006’s Migration, but a collection of almost disparate themes flowing from one idea to the next in imaginative free play through a mixing desk and (originally) projected onto a screen. 

As typical of Schaefer’s work as a sound artist, the intention is still to produce the effect of a visual anamnesis in the mind of the listener and depending on your state of mind, could be anything from rainbow drenched sunsets and casual beach nudity (Title Track) to axe-wielding sociopaths stuck in a nightmarish, playground (Scarlett Arrives) or you could just take your cue from the album artwork (pictured above). Using digital techniques on self-built record players to manipulate a variety of sounds, from field recordings to turntable scratching to Spanish sitcoms, Schaefer’s music is probably one of the closest things to an aural Rorschach diagram that I can think of.

As with all of Schaefer’s work, the pieces on this album are beautifully composed electro-acoustic soundscapes. The title track opens with the sound of rain, water, waves etc. but this is no new age jungle recording for pregnant women to have a relaxing bath to (even if the static alone might induce labour, I’m not sure that’s what Scaefer would have intended), instead he uses his skill as a composer to manipulate these sounds, adding layers of orchestral sampling, keyboard sampling, vinyl sampling and various other electronic flourishes.

Free improvisation is one part of his technique, sure, but his skill lies in integration. At no point on the record, does anything sound out of place, from the Spanish sitcom, breaking into gentle guitar strumming interspersed with mechanical sound recordings, and accompanied by an orchestral crescendo to what I think is Kristen Guru Murphy’s voice on Boulevard périphérique next to some French dialog, which sounds like it came straight out of sixties New Wave cinema. One of the great things about Schaefer’s ability as a composer is his ability to surprise. When listening you never know what’s coming next, where the last sounds came from, how he’s going to mix them together, but it’s his skill as a composer that holds the whole album together and despite the lack of an overarching theme, Alone at Last still feels like a coherent work of art, pushing the boundaries between sound and music.

No doubt this is still ambient, but as subtle as Schaefer’s palette is there’s always so much going on it’s hard to take it all in on first listen. For those of us left wanting more from works like Brian Eno’s Ambient series, Schaeffer delivers in exquisite fashion.


Xiu Xiu - Women as Lovers (Kill Rock Stars 2008)

Women As Lovers
Kill Rock Stars 2008

Listen: No Friend Oh!

Jamie Stewart the bad-ass of avant-garde genre poking mayhem returns with his 7th album as Xiu Xiu. So expect more camp synths, disjointed sounds, warped screeching, and hushed narrative whisperings on top of a solid backbone of catchy-as-hell pop tunes.

The opening track sounds positively cheerful, surely Mr. Stewart isn’t feeling happy-go-lucky, what happened to the rage he so violently expressed on his previous albums, but listen more closely and it’s not all bluebells in spring, no, no, no, there’s definitely something much more sinister going on. The playful xylophone merely acts a foil to the creepy and grating beats that drive the song and by the time it’s all over, Xiu Xiu dispel all quietude with ‘In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall’, an vicious, straight-up biting love song gone too far. Now Xiu Xiu are back with that piercing blend of fractured pop and avant-garde rambling.

It has been possible in previous Xiu Xiu albums to discern either an intense, visceral experience or a more dominant, charming pop sensibility, but on this album, the distinction is clouded, it is uniquely, both frightening and beautiful. But before you think about the sublime, there’s also something overwhelming daunting about such an experience, can it really be sustained for nearly three quarters of an hour without letting up? My guess is that, more so than other Xiu Xiu album, this one is going to take someone with a strong will to sit all the way through in one sitting. An unusual quality for an album to possess, perhaps, but this is Xiu Xiu we’re talking about and it’s not exactly going to be a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.

‘Guantanamo Canto’ is one of those anti-war songs that is as fierce as it is affecting ‘and your son grows to kill us all/ we say thank you complicity/ your daughter grows to kill us all/ and we say thanks to ease our shame’, but somehow it lacks the emotional impact of ‘Support Our Troops Oh! (Black Angels Oh!)’ from Fabulous Muscles. It’s not as grim, true, but given its place on the album, its not exactly uplifting either.

Though in the midst of all those torturous whelps and painful guitar scratching, and Jamie Stewart singing about all the atrocious acts of evil that humans commit, from child abuse to racism, there are certain moments, where perhaps Xiu Xiu do offer a sense of hope, no matter how fleeting. And it is in those moments, that the true beauty of the album really shines forth. It’s OK to sing angrily about those things that make you mad, but to do so too aggressively would be disruptive and the thing about Xiu Xiu is that they know exactly when to let go and when to hold back. They like to keep things taut, and as exemplified on one of the albums highlights, the cover of ‘Under Pressure’, when the tautness snaps, it is produces an exquisite pain.

Xiu Xiu like to take the listener from one extreme to another, so with songs like ‘Black Keyboard’ a quiet reflective piece about child abuse with a bone-chilling eeriness about it, and ‘Puff and Bunny’ they glide along with minimal effort and restrained synths, but then they use songs like ‘You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead’ and ‘White Nerd’ which have a brutal smattering of electronic whirls, handclaps, drums and swirling synths to really pound the listener into submission. Don’t worry though, it’s still got those comforting melodies to hold it all together, except maybe they’re not so comforting after the third or fourth listen.

Xiu Xiu are never going to produce an album that is charming or reserved, it’s just not their thing, and their fans will love them for it. And this still isn’t the album that is going to brace the waters, in which a wider audience patiently awaits, but try it out for sure, not to your tastes, give it to a friend. Xiu Xiu have a big following out there somewhere, and Women as Lovers will certainly do them no harm.


Nico Muhly - Mothertongue (Bedroom Community, 2008)

Bedroom Community 2008

Listen: Mothertongue Pt. 1: Archive

Last year, Nico Muhly released one of my favourite albums of the year. While Speaks Volumes was good, it was still the sign of a promising young composer finding his feet and listening to Mothertongue, Muhly demonstrates that he has so much to offer.

Mothertongue is an album of storytelling, which isn't that strange in itself, music has always been used to spin a good yarn and here, Muhly has in some ways returned to the old-fashioned, man in a pub with a fiddle style of musical narration. The title piece is a four movement work, with elements of Stockhausen's Stimmung as voices overflow, overlap, create rhythm and texture. Mezzo-soprano singer, Abigail Fischer, shouts out numbers, place names, addresses that all stand as a testament to the modern of age of chaotic urban living. But Muhly isn't so much interested in pure intonation as Stockhausen was, but simply the beauty of the human voice and the textures it can create. The other obvious references are to 60s minimalist composers like Glass and Riley as Muhly consistently creates new musical patterns from overlapping melodies of voice, harpsichord, electronics etc.

Mulhy uses the same process in Wonders, a piece inspired by a 17th century English madrigal composer Thomas Weelkes. Here harpsichord, trombone and Helgi Hrafn Jónsson's vocals narrate the rather sinister tale of Weelkes, including a complaint that was sent to the bishop of Chichester regarding the composer's heavy drinking and recklessness. Strange and unusual, but The Devil Appear'd In the Shape of a Man has one of the most exciting interplays between a harpsichord and a trombone I've ever heard.

And then there is the story about the girl who drowned in a lake, because she was cruelly pushed by her jealous sister. On The Only Tune, Muhly really demonstrates his musical prowess in his ability to tell a highly poetic and ultimately tragic story, opening with a barrage of drones, horns and harpsichord as fellow Bedroom Community musician Sam Amidon begins to sing. Beauty in bleakness has rarely sounded so good, drifting from noise to simple guitar melodies to organs to noise and all held wonderfully together by the diversity of Amidon's voice, as he shifts from a sprightly retelling to a darker, sombre version as the piece progresses.

In an age where television shows and movies seem content to deliver formulaic drama, it is a great pleasure to listen to a piece of music that reverts back to 17th century methods not for pastiche, but for experimentation and exploration to tell stories filled with emotional resonance. This is a highly original piece of music, not just for fans of Classical music, but folk and even Indie, challenging yes, but without the brutality and cold intellectualism of other recent classical works.


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