Christian Wallumrød Ensemble – Many

As innovative as it is, modern classical music has settled into something of a comfortable pattern, with a relatively predictable interplay between acoustic instruments and electronics. What once felt like progressive, modernistic flourishes now feel familiar; there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but with a few notable exceptions, it’s often easy to form an impression of what a modern classical album will sound like before you’ve even put it on.

One of those exceptions is Norwegian composer and ensemble leader Christian Wallumrød. After a series of celebrated albums for the venerable ECM label, alternative musical paths in his sibling electronic duo Brutter, and parallel time spent in the Dans Le Arbre quartet, Wallumrød released the brilliant Kurzsam And Fulger through Hubro in 2016. His is a modern classical that nudges into jazz territory without ever fully giving in to that movement’s improvisatory pedigree, creating music with an inherent fluidity that nods to traditions in its foundations, but which aggressively looks to more experimental territory for its final appearance.

Wallumrød’s new ensemble recording, Many, finds inspiration in the musique concrète innovations made by Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in 1950s Paris or the early deployment of tape technology by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. What you won’t find here, however, are moments of forcibly-processed sound or intrusive technological gestures. This is an album which – at times – is heavily electronic without using heavy electronics, its reverential concession to musique concrète being some of its confounding, nonconformist rhythmic basis. A piece like ‘Danszaal’ with its chiming trumpet and saxophone passages from Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen respectively progresses with a dizzying, stop-start judderiness that nevertheless carries subtle, microtonally shifting beauty. A similar effect is achieved on ‘Staccotta’, led by Wallumrød’s unswerving piano stabs and plucked cello, blasts of brass and a breakdown into pure electronics giving this a playful, elusive, ever-changing quality.

Elsewhere, that use of electronics is more prominent, and each of Wallumrød’s ensemble – himself, Lønning, Reinertsen, cellist Tove Törngren Brun and drummer / percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen – is credited with the use of electronics alongside their usual instrument. Opening track ‘Oh Gorge’ weaves sprinkles of bleeping, synths around Brun’s mesmeric cello cycles, the whole thing pushed through a heavy echo that gives any of the additional elements – Johansen’s vibraphone, Wallumrød’s upper register piano playing – a sense of spinning out from a turbulent vortex. ‘Abysm’ is perhaps the moment where the electronics take over, the whole piece dominated in the foreground by droning synth textures, effects, loops and a general feeling of wild experimentation, its discordant tendencies operating at odds with a prevailing sense of calm.

The key piece here, perhaps, is the fourteen-minute ‘El Johnton’, a series of three movements that begins with a strident piano, saxophone and brushed snare passage that sounds like the coda to a Billy Joel song, before evolving into something firmer and yet more free. The following section develops as a thrilling minimalist, electroacoustic sound field of electronic pulses, bursts of synthetic tones and arrays of metallic non-rhythms, offset with unpredictable acoustic interventions, almost as the extremest counterpoint to the opening passage; brief passages of that starting point’s piano section drift in and out like melodic memories, suggesting and forcing a connection between the two with the most unlikely sonic construction. By the time the original section is reprised, it feels altered somehow, less straight, its traditional structure sounding suddenly alien after being mauled, manipulated and brutally erased in the ten intervening minutes.

Many by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble was released February 28 2020 by Hubro.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Avi Pfeffer – A Lasting Impression

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Classical music and electronics are currently locked in a comfortable embrace. This has arisen largely as a consequence of modern compositional methods which rely heavily on the ambience and atmospherics that a careful-deployed analogue synth or some after-hours digital manipulation can add to the music.

It wasn’t ever thus. From more or less the beginning of synthesizer technology becoming more accessible, the game in town was to produce electronic arrangements of classical pieces, and that’s the jumping-off point for Boston composer Avi Pfeffer’s A Lasting Impression.

The four-part suite uses classical structures and figures but is delivered entirely electronically. Beats drift in then ebb away, melodic gestures re-emerge continually and Pfeffer deploys a dizzying array of sounds, textures and rhythms throughout the almost hour-long album. The tonality of these collected sounds is especially important – this isn’t gauzy, drifting ambience or modern glitch-heavy soundtrack noir, but bold, grandiose sounds arranged into longform movements. I’ve never quite grasped the vernacular to articulate why this is, but there’s something about hearing electronics used in this way – a particular challenge when your diet consists primarily of people twiddling modular synth knobs or making electronic pop – that makes me think of Don Dorsey’s distinctive retrofuturism.

Dorsey made a series of electronic albums in the mid-1980s that essentially took Bach’s music and recreated their austere presentation with an enviable kitlist of cutting-edge electronic equipment, much as Wendy Carlos had done twenty years before. He also went on to be the in-house sound designer for Walt Disney World, composing the fresh, euphoric, scientific-sounding music that’s still memorably piped into places like Epcot and Tomorrowland.

I get the same feeling of hearing something exceptionally forward-looking yet locked in a particular era when listening to A Lasting Impression. If the press release had said Pfeffer had written these pieces thirty-five years ago and they’d languished, unreleased, I’d have not been surprised. To do this type of thing today is brave. We’re not used to hearing electronics like this in 2020, and so to enjoy it requires a little adjustment. Once you do, it’s a perfectly enjoyable record, full of interesting details and moments.

My personal favourite sequence arrives with the gleeful, squelchy opening minutes of the third part, largely because it transports me to the deck of Narcoossee’s on a balmy Florida evening several years ago watching The Electrical Water Pageant (originally scored by Dorsey) burble and fizz its inimitable way past with my daughters; just for giving me the the opportunity to reminisce about that makes this album entirely worth it.

A Lasting Impression by Avi Pfeffer is released February 7 2020 by Pumpedita.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Richard Skelton – LASTGLACIALMAXIMUM

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Richard Skelton’s latest album is a forty-minute evocation of the growth, peak and accelerated thawing of the British and Irish glacial landscapes, presented as a series of eight movements of slow, developing tones that ebb away into quiet murmurs; basically, it’s like Morton Feldman, on ice.

The effect is powerfully disconcerting when heard in the context of climate change and the insistent messages of politician, scientists, protesters about the urgency of the corrective action that might be required to arrest the impact.

Across these movements there is a sense of stillness and calm, but also a slightly dizzying sensation. The precise instrumentation is not disclosed, and one never knows the origins of these long, eddying indeterminate tones and warped, muffled drones; at times it sounds like industrial, metallic noise, while at others we hear what could be an especially mournful, poignant cello, only presented like a vague outline of something that once was, but which can never be again. Sounds drift in and out, like gusts of wind across the arctic tundra, only presented as fleetingly melancholic, and edged with a frosty tension. There is a feeling of isolation, a panic-inducing out-of-placeness, that sensation being all the more remarkable given the levels of nothingness one experiences here.

Your response to music is often entirely situational. For me, I chose to listen to this during the clamour and franticity of a walk three and a half blocks from a hotel in New York to a downtown E train during the rush hour. Something about the slow, ominous passage of the music chimed menacingly with the post-work streetscene of manic Manhattan, a world removed from the subject matter of Skelton’s remarkable work, yet somehow entirely in tune with it.

LASTGLACIALMAXIMUM by Richard Skelton is released February 2 2020 by Corbel Stone Press

(c) 2020 Further.

Robert Haigh – Black Sarabande

Everything I’ve ever written about any album, concert or piece of music is wrong.

I know this because of something that happened while I was quietly listening to ‘Arc Of Crows’ by pianist Robert Haigh, a track taken from his new album Black Sarabande, at the weekend while reorganising my loft. The experience was a poignant one in more ways than one, but not because of the crawling around on my knees sorting out boxes; that was just painful.

‘Arc Of Crows’ is an arresting, quiet, delicate piece of piano music nodding gently and reverently in the direction of Satie and it immediately stopped me in my tracks, a box of Christmas decorations in hand, and I found myself standing there for the entirety of its three minutes and forty-eight second duration, in that brief passage of time contemplating everything I have ever done, everything I have ever hoped for, the highs, the lows, the disappointments, the missed opportunities, the what-ifs, the future – the lot.

It very possibly had the profoundest effect on me that any piece of music has had or will ever have. Possibly this was owing to its sparseness, being simply Haigh’s piano accompanied by a soft, imperceptible sound in the background, somewhere between a brushed cymbal, muted traffic noise or a curtain of rain; or possibly because of its textures, its hidden depths and its delicate, resolute, outline.

Toward the end of my immersion in my thoughts, my teenage daughter arrived in the room in which the loft happens to be, and visibly and audibly recoiled at Haigh’s piece. She complained of it making her feel claustrophobic, panicked, uncomfortable and very possibly called it ‘weird’ (both of my daughters call all of the music I listen to ‘weird’, incidentally). She was still griping about it over lunch the next day. I’m at a loss to understand what it is that she heard that I didn’t, what quality it was that I found mesmerising but which she found anxiety-inducing.

Hence my conclusion that you can’t trust anything I write. Read on at your peril.

The reason Black Sarabande might have got me in a contemplative mood is possibly because it finds Haigh ruminating on his own life, specifically his childhood in the mining village of Worsbrough in South Yorkshire; his father was a miner and his early years were spent among the strange culture clash between the vestiges of the Victorian Industrial Age and the rural hills and dales through which progress had permanently left its mark.

That tension can be be found mournfully lurking in pieces like ‘Stranger On The Lake’ or ‘Ghosts Of Blacker Dyke’, not in an air of machine-driven harshness but just a sort of echo of one; little sounds drift in and out of view, sometimes melodically, sometimes as what could be a distant train clattering on its tracks, sometimes as unidentifiable noises with a brittle edge as if broken forcibly from something else, leaving only a vague impression of what was there before. Other pieces, like the genteel arpeggios of ‘Progressive Music’ are simply unadorned moments of intense wonder, like a hopeful sunrise on a frosty morning, full of promise and serenity and freighted with a welcome, disarming clarity.

Black Sarabande by Robert Haigh is released January 24 2020 by Unseen Worlds.

(c) 2020 Further.

2019: From The Side Of The Desk

My desk at home is a mess, as Mrs S continually points out to me.

It is a place for incoming mail to accumulate, a home for broken bits of things that need to be repaired, seven-inch singles that were taken out of their alphabetised boxes and which never quite found their way back, research materials for projects I may or may not ever finish, an in-tray containing goodness-knows-what and somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, a miniature Zen garden; I imagine that if the bird statue could come to life it would be shaking its head in dismay at the very un-Zen chaos that surrounds it.

On the left hand side of the desk is a pile of CD promos graciously sent to me over the course of the year which never quite got reviewed. This troubles me endlessly. And so, in an effort to repay that generosity and goodwill, and so I can show Mrs S that I’ve cleared at least some of the detritus off my desk, here’s a clutch of short reviews of some of the albums I never quite got around to in 2019.

“A good many back payments are included,” said Ebenezer Scrooge as he whispered his donation to the same charity collectors he had dismissed several pages before in A Christmas Carol, and so this is for all the labels and PRs and artists who graciously shared their music with me this year but which I then seemed to uncharitably ignore.

I’ll keep the desk – both physical and digital – clearer in 2020; I promise.

Jazzrausch Bigband – Dancing Wittgenstein (ACT)

In which the Roman Sladek and Leonhard Kuhn-led forty-piece big band’s 2018 self-released album gets a shiny reissue by the ACT imprint. The album found the band showcasing their distinctive flavour of acoustic jazz augmented by techno beats and authentic synth flourishes, with lyrics derived directly from the work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s bonkers, but it works – honest.

The album’s finest moments arrive on the eponymous opening ten-minute piece – replete with cycles of Terry Riley motifs – and the hypnotic house pianos of ‘Continuous Dirichlet’, the latter forcing headache-inducing Googling of incomprehensible statistical theory.

Lumen Drones – Umbra (Hubro)

Umbra is the second album from Norway’s Lumen Drones, a trio of esteemed fiddle maestro Nils Økland, guitarist Per Steinar Lie, and drummer Ørjan Haaland. Lie and Haaland’s day jobs in the post-rockers The Low Frequency In Stereo provides the weighty folk-blues bedrock of the standout ‘Droneslag’, whereupon Økland’s Hardanger fiddle provides a noisy, discordant tension.

In complete contrast, the trio’s seamless interplay on ‘Etnir’ produces the album’s most serene and dreamlike piece, full of beguiling wonder and ethereal, mystical texture. Umbra was released on the inestimable Hubro label, the first of three releases in this list that I failed to review this year.

Elephant9 – Psychedelic Backfire I & II (Rune Grammofon)

Norway jazz-rock supergroup Elephant9’s double live collection was recorded at Oslo’s Kampen Bistro in January 2019 and finds the trio of Ståle Storløkken (Hammond, Rhodes, Minimoog, Mellotron), Nicolai Hængsle (bass) and Torstein Lofthus (drums) ripping through white-hot takes of tracks from their five studio albums.

The first set features energetic re-treads of their debut album’s title track ‘Dodovoodoo’, which here seems to traverse the paper-thin frontier between Can at their most freeform Chick Corea’s Return To Forever at their most lysergic. Two versions of the evolving groove of ‘Habanera Rocket’ – one on the first set as a trio performance and one on the second augmented by Reine Fiske’s additional guitar – riff on the track’s central rhythmic shuffle, the latter featuring Fiske’s guitar prowling feistily around Storløkken’s dexterous keyboard work in a truly breathtaking duel.

Afenginn – Klingra (Tutl Records)

The work of Danish composer Kim Rafael Nyberg, Afenginn offers a distinctive take on modern classical composition that draws parallels with the work of Yann Tiersen. Tiersen’s vocal collaborator Ólavur Jákupsson can be heard across the eight pieces included here, as can The Danish String Quartet, percussionist Knut Finsrud, bassist Mikael Blak, drummer Ulrik Brohuus, the twin pianos of Teitur and Dánjal á Neystab and the mournful violin of Niels Skovmand.

To call this body of work haunting would be an understatement, with the gentle melodic washes, electronic textures and layered jazz percussion of ‘Ivin’ and the growling analogue synth-heavy coda on the towering ‘Skapanin’ having a particular resonance.

Jo Berger Myhre / Ólafur Björn Ólafsson – Lanzarote (Hubro)

Lanzarote is the second outing on Hubro for Norwegian bassist Jo Merger Myhre and keyboard / percussion guru and Jóhann Jóhannsson collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, and follows 2017’s The Third Script.

Their new album finds their simpatico approach to texture and sound augmented by resonant brass contributions from Ingi Garðar Garðarsson and Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson. The slow-build and ultimately noisy layered crescendo of ‘Atomised – All We’ve Got’, features buzzing electronics, urgent drumming and anguished horns, the whole thing sounding a lot like the end of days before collapsing into a passage of muted reflection. The tuned drums of the quiet ‘Current’ evokes comparisons with Manu Delago, its percussive core offset by Myhre’s searing double bass melodies and gentle spirals of delicate, inchoate Moog.

Armin Lorenz Gerold – Scaffold Eyes (The Wormhole)

Armin Lorenz Gerold is a an Austrian multimedia artist who also performs under the name wirefoxterrier. Currently based in Berlin, Gerold’s primary focus of late has been on altering perceptions of the radio play, with Scaffold Eyes taking the form of a live performance for Gerold’s voice augmented by pre-recorded sounds delivered through a binaural speaker installation.

Originally performed at Berlin’s KW Institute in November 2017, the CD release on The Wormhole presents Gerold’s rich narrative as a noir soundworld, featuring occasional forays into café jazz, harpsichord classicism and delicate sections of pianissimo texture. Gerold’s soft diaristic delivery is accompanied by additional segments performed by Doireann O’Malley and Miriam Stoney, each word imbued with a strange, haunting resonance, even when describing quotidian events and observations. The effect is not dissimilar to the strange, unresolved ambience of Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, and it’s hard not to imagine Gerold’s work resplendent in murky monochrome, lit by the diffuseness of ineffective street lighting.

Frode Haltli – Border Woods (Hubro)

Frode Haltli is an accordionist and no stranger to the Hubro imprint. For Border Woods, he is joined by the esoteric percussion of Håkon Stene and Eirik Raude, and his distinctive accordion playing is interwoven with Emilia Amper’s nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle).

On tracks like the concluding ‘Quietly The Language Dies’, the quartet’s unified sound centres on a seamless interplay between the accordion and nyckelharp, veering from stirring (if mournful) melodic alignment to powerfully discordant drones. Beneath them, Stene and Raude’s percussion is ephemeral and textural, a gentle foundation of tuned drums providing an unexpected counterweight. At the other extreme, the fifteen minute ‘Mostamägg Polska’ channels a particularly vivid flavour of traditional Nordic folk music, interspersed with moments of beatific ambience.

With thanks (and apologies) to Ian, Jim and Philip.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Laura Agnusdei – Laurisilva

Laura Agnusdei is an Italian saxophonist, electronic musician and all-round deep thinker, whose musical endeavours range from studying electronic music in The Hague to playing sax in psych groups to producing complex melodic music fusing together all of her seemingly incompatible disparate interests. Laurisilva, her debut full-length album takes its name from ancient subtropical forests, the first part of its name providing a link to the Latin etymological root word that begat her first name.

Recorded in The Hague where she completed her Masters in electronic music and her Bologna bedroom, Laurisilva is an absorbing suite of six pieces that seek to evoke the natural environments of the forests that inspired its creation. Here, on tracks like the mesmerising title track or ‘Epiphyte Blues’, you find Agnusdei’s sax playing providing effortlessly evocative motifs, augmented by gurgling analogue electronics, intricate sound design flourishes and delicate processing, occasionally seeing a range of collaborators dropping in jazzy reeds, flutes and trumpet. The result is a sort of wonky electroacoustic big band music somewhere on the continuum between jazz, exotica, Warp electronica and modern classical (whatever that is).

The departure from woodland concerns arrives in the form of ‘Shaky Situation’, a skittish, randomised composition that finds Agnusdei layering in insistent spoken word instructions from what sounds like a particularly curmudgeonly jazz band leader about the need to practice playing daily. Here the sound palette moves from hooky electronic passages that nod to both Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works and Terry Riley’s In C, blurry sax lines and dissonant clashes of instrumentation, the result being something unpredictable, intentionally messy and gleefully disjointed.

The standout moment ‘Jungle Shuffle’ is the closest Agnusdei gets to a form of traditional jazz, her playing running the gamut from early 1920s swing to wild free jazz, underpinned by a fractured rhythm belonging on a long out-of-print Disney album of Polynesian sounds subjected to a precision-sharp digital scalpel. By the track’s conclusion, all traces of reverential jazz reference points have become buried, mere distant aural memories beneath a forest floor carpeted with broken beats and splintered percussion.

Note to listener: to unintentionally evoke the legacy of Mr John Peel, this album also sounds superb at 45rpm.

Laurisilva by Laura Agnusdei was released November 29 2019 by The Wormhole. With thanks to Don Wyrm for coffee, comversation and cassettes.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.

Doug Wieselman – From Water

Clarinettist Doug Wieselman is one of those adaptable players that can alternate between New York’s music scenes effortlessly, straddling involvement with artsy bandleaders like Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono, the left-of-mainstream pop of Martha Wainwright or the freedom of the city’s jazz firmament. From Water is a solo album consisting of several Doug Wieselmans in the form of a many-layered suite of eleven pieces whose melodies were inspired by water, beaches, rivers and hot springs.

Each piece here is led by a fluid, evocative melody operating somewhere on a continuum stretching between classical minimalism, delicate ambience and the most lyrical phrasings of jazz. Those melodies have a lightness of touch yet also a largesse and grandeur befitting of pieces often inspired by the vastness of oceans. It would have been all too easy for Wieselman to leave From Water precisely there, and it would have been compelling enough as an album were he to have done that. Instead, his approach was to add loops, layers, discordancy, drones, and, on ‘Tennessee Valley’, a whole-instrument technique involving vocalising rhythmic sounds through the reed. He also adopted a technique of playing predominantly deployed in Turkish folk music, giving pieces like ‘Gloria Fleur Madre’ an exotic mystique, like detritus arriving on the shores of the Hudson from the cargo of a sunken vessel running the historic trade routes of the Middle East.

The trippy phased effects on the standout ‘Moonhaw’ lend that piece a volatility and turbulence, reminiscent of standing on a beach during a storm, while the plaintive, relatively unadorned ruminations of ‘Salmon’ contain a gentle, laconic playfulness that ultimately concludes with rippling passages of echoing upper register note clusters.

One of the most haunting moments here is a stunning, muted version of John Lennon’s ‘Julia’, its instantly-recognisable lyricism offset by the subtlest of background processing to create a moment of calm, yet pensive, tranquility.

From Water by Doug Wieselman is released October 25 2019 by Figureight Records.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Further.