Another Timbre: Silence and After 2 – Cutting Edge
When the Another Timbre label was launched in the autumn of 2007, its proprietor, Simon Reynell, said he intended its output to be a balance between electro-acoustic improvisation (eai), European free improv (EFI) and modern composition. While acknowledging that there are areas of overlap between these categories, at the time he added, "My interest in contemporary classical music has continued alongside my passion for improv, so I was very clear that I wanted Another Timbre to cover both areas. However, I soon discovered that most classical music is prohibitively expensive to bring to disc, unless you have a wealthy patron or commercial backer. So whereas I'd really like a third of the releases to be classical, the reality will be a lot less."
Impressively, Another Timbre has released some 56 albums in four years, so it is timely to look back at its achievements and compare them to those intentions. It is particularly timely in light of the label's latest series of five albums entitled "Silence and After 2Cutting Edge" which follows "Silence and After 1" from December 2010; both series were intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silence by John Cage.
Just to make things absolutely clear, Caisson is the title of the second album by the trio now called Tierce which consists of Jez Riley French on a range of sound sources including field recordings, zither, salt, paper, camera, contact microphones and internal electronics, plus the Czech Ivan Palacky on amplified Dopleta 160 knitting machine, and Daniel Jones on turntable and electronics; Tierce's first release was the mini CD Tierce (Engraved Glass, 2008), credited to the three individuals.
Rather than being studio-recorded (or constructed), Caisson was recorded live at French's concert series Seeds & Bridges in Hull in November 2010, and its single 58 minute track is a part of the performance selected for release by the players after the event. Although the list of instrumentation may read rather strangely, the combination works and the sounds fit together well, with Palacky's knitting machine being a reliable stand-by to produce industrial rhythmic passages and Jones frequently supplying electronic glitchery. The clarity of the recording is commendable. If anything, the field recordings of everyday sounds tend to dominate, as they are given considerable space by Jones and Palacky who back off rather too easily, leaving the field to French.
Caisson is certainly fitting as part of a series celebrating the anniversary of Cage's Silence; it features the types of sounds that can all too easily become lost in the hubbub of modern life and that are enthralling once they are afforded the attention they do not normally merityes, exactly the types of sounds that Cage meant listeners to focus on during his "4' 33."
Divisions That Could Be Autonomous But That Comprise the Whole
With Divisions That Could Be Autonomous But That Comprise the Whole we have crossed the fuzzily-defined divide between improvisation and composition. Professor James Saunders, Head of Centre for Musical Research at Bath Spa University, is a composer specialising in modular compositions and series. The album is a series of pieces each with a score consisting of single pages containing sound events spread across a variable duration between 40 and 80 seconds. The pieces are performed as self-contained compositions; any pages from the series may be combined and performed under the overall series title.
On the opening track, "Imperfections On the Surface Are Occasionally Apparent," performed by the Edges Ensemble directed by Philip Thomas, ten players each drag a cardboard coffee cup across five different surfaces50 different surfaces in total. The resulting sound field typifies the album, remaining subdued but continuously varying in subtle ways as the players employ different surfaces and their scraping sounds blend in together. Next up, on "Part of It May Also Be Something Else," Thomas performs solo using piano, melodica, harmonica and radio to explore similarities and differences between their tones.
Saunders himself performs on two tracks. On "Components Derive Their Value Solely Through Their Assigned Context," he and his regular duo partner Tim Parkinson combine the compatible sounds of radio static with bowed wood to produce a soundscape similar to the opening track. For the final track, "Any Part Can Replace Any Other part," that duo is joined by Angharad Davies on violin; again, the scraping and bowing of the three combines into an integrated whole. Considered as a totality, the album hangs together well, the tracks being similar enough to create a consistent feel but having contrasts so that they are distinctly different. An impressive achievement.
Lash, Farmer, Hughes, Houben, Susam
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.
Farmer, Kilymis, Hughes, Cornford
Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes reappear on No Islands, this time in a quartet with Kostis Kilymis on electronics and Stephen Cornford on amplified piano. The four play two improvisations and a version of Cage's "Four6"; despite the prevailing Cageian ethic of this set of releases, this is the only actual Cage composition on any of the albums. This version of "Four6" is the second released by Another Timbre, the first, by Tom Chant, Angharad Davies, Dominic Drew and John Edwards, having appeared in 2009 on the fine Decentred. (The label has also released an album of Cage's "Four4," further evidence of Reynell's steadfast adherence to his initial intentions throughout Another Timbre's four years.)
Comparisons between the two versions of "Four6" highlight the flexibility of Cage's composition in which, "The performers choose twelve different sounds each, with fixed amplitude, overtone structure etc., and play within the flexible time brackets." Those time brackets ensure that the players do not get in each other's way and serve to give the composition the open feel of a good improvised piece. The performers' choices of sounds shape the end result significantly. This version opens with birdsongselected by one of the players, not ambientand it recurs throughout the half-hour piece as a signature motif, alongside swelling bowed notes, percussive rattlings and thumps, electronic tones and drones, and struck piano notes. The recording is exquisite, allowingas it shouldthe beginning, middle and end of each sound to be clearly heard and savored. As a version of "Four6," it is first rate, illustrating its beauty and ingenuity.
In the main, the two improvisations achieve a good four-way balance between the players, as overlapping sounds come and go in a manner similar to that of the Cage piece. However, the improvisations contrast with the composition in that they lack its structure and balance between the four players. So, occasionally the electronics or percussion can play too loudly or for just too long, dominating the quieter instruments. This is particularly true of a booming low frequency electronic drone which sometimes drowns out other sounds. This is not a major problem, but it does serve to highlight the advantage for an ensemble of playing a composed piece if the instrumental sounds do not have comparable dynamics.
A Pauper's Guide to John Cage
Another Timbre Byways
Last, and by no means least, comes A Pauper's Guide to John Cage, on the budget Another Timbre Byways imprint, which was originally intended to feature lesser-known musicians. Across its 44 minutes, it features two compositions by Anett Németh played by the composer herself alone on a range of instruments and equipment. The album opens with the brilliantly-named title piece, which has an underlying drone/hum (maybe produced by "domestic electronics") over which Németh plays well-spaced piano chords and single notes which are allowed to resound and linger so that they can be fully appreciateda characteristic of much Wandelweiser music, although Németh is at pains to deny that association, preferring to stress her admiration for Cage.
"Early Morning Melancholia," the second track, is distinctly different to the first, consisting of layers of rising and falling drones and tones without added instruments, but it is clearly from the same source, creating an emotion-laden atmosphere that is entirely consistent with its title. Whatever Németh's influences, her music achieves an impressive balance between surface and depth; it is initially appealing enough to engage the listener while it reveals ever more with repeated listening. Overall, this album is simply beautiful and beautifully simple. We will be hearing more from Anett Németh.
As a series of releases, "Silence and After 2" is highly commendable, showing Another Timbre to be in excellent shape after its first four years. With a US presidential election looming, this seems appropriate: "Four More Years!"
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: one untitled track.
Personnel: Jez riley French: field recordings, zither, salt, paper, camera, contact microphones, internal electronics; Ivan Palacky: amplified dopleta 180 knitting machine; Daniel Jones: turntable, electronics.
Divisions That Could Be Autonomous But That Comprise the Whole
Tracks: Imperfections on The Surface Are Occasionally Apparent; Part of It May Also Be Something Else; Components Derive Their Value Solely Through Their Assigned Context; Materials Vary Greatly and Are Simply Materials; Although It May Appear to Vary By the Way in Which Units Are Joined; Any One Part Can Replace Any Other Part.
Personnel: Edges Ensemble: coffee cups on various surfaces (1); Philip Thomas: piano, melodica, harmonica, radio (2); Parkinson Saunders: bowed wood, radios (3); Rhodri Davies: harp, objects (4); Stephen Chase: guitar, radio, melodica(5); Angharad Davies: violin (6); Tim Parkinson: bowed metal (6); James Saunders: coffee cup on brick (6).
Tracks: For Maaike Schoorel, Realisation #1; Elusion (improvisation); For Maaike Schoorel, Realisation #2; Nachtstück.
Personnel: Dominic Lash: double bass; Patrick Farmer: percussion (1-3); Sarah Hughes: zither (1-3).
Tracks: Improvisation; Improvisation; Four6.
Personnel: Patrick Farmer: turntables, electronics; Kostis Kilymis: electronics; Sarah Hughes: chorded zither; Stephen Cornford: amplified piano.
A Pauper's Guide to John Cage
Tracks: A Pauper's Guide to John Cage; Early Morning Melancholia.
Personnel: Anett Németh: piano, clarinet, household objects, field recordings, manipulated recordings, domestic electronics.