Music Reviews

Artist: Mick Sussman
Title: The Kressel Studies
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Carrier Records
Mick Sussman here continues his experiments with music generation via software code and pseudorandom numbers. What’s offered up is a set of twenty-four outputs, none named, all numbered in the style of software version numbers. Every piece is between 150 and 180 seconds long.

But despite the strict uniformity of those aspects, the sounds contained therein are actually fairly diverse, within a certain scope. That scope I would lazily describe as “Radiophonic Workshop 1960’s”- all the pulse and wave-generated raw and analogue experimental noises of the period, with some rough-edged effects and reverbs, and pitch changes that feel tape-motor-speed-adjustment driven. Some pieces add gently carved and treated noise generation in for a more percussive feel. For something so absolutely digital in form, there’s quite an analogue feel to it somehow.

There are chaotic pieces that wear their randomisation boldly, such as the manic “26.2.21” or “33.5.1”. Others, like “27.6.18” with its harpsichord-and-bell-like play-harmonisation, are equally random but lesser paced, giving them a dreamier feel. A handful, such as “28.1.6”, spin off in a rather sillier direction, with noises with, bluntly, sound like comedy farting played at different pitches.

Iterations 37 and 38, at the end of the album, adopt a more abstract and ambient feel, with less skittish melodies being replaced by longer drones and atmospheric sounds, as though the program has matured or settled, which wraps it up nicely. Other than that though, composition-based observations are certainly thin on the ground.

The programming-minded among us may leave feeling a little underfed with information about how this generation was done. I found myself itching to see the code under the hood, to see the ‘score’ that had created this work- but given its potential, it makes sense that it might be regarded as commercially sensitive.

The abstraction of it is quite alienating, and while some pieces (e.g. “27.6.18”) are fairly soft and accessible, as an hour-long listening experience it’s cerebral but not wholly engaging, just slightly failing to offer up enough variety or enough coincidences in the randomisation to really hook you in. But, said in the style of a certain famous sci-fi android, the result is still “fascinating”.
Artist: Scott L. Miller/TAK Ensemble (@)
Title: Ghost Layers: TAK plays Miller
Format: CD + Download
Label: New Focus Recordings (@)
Rated: *****
Ghost Layers' is a collaboration between electro-acoustic composer Scott L. Miller and the critically acclaimed TAK Ensemble, a quintet that delivers energetic and virtuosic performance of “21st century chamber music that combines crystalline clarity with the disorienting turbulence of a sonic vortex.” (WIRE Magazine). The group consists of Laura Cocks, flute; Marina Kifferstein, violin; Joshua Rubin, clarinet/bass clarinet; Meaghan Burke, cello; Ellery Trafford, percussion; Charlotte Mundy, voice; Tristan McKay, piano. Throughout his work, composer Scott Miller demonstrates a reverence for observation — of the sounds of the natural world, the nuances of the electronic realm, and the intricacies of acoustic instruments. On 'Ghost Layers' we hear this quality manifested in several chamber works, all but one of which include electronics. In much of his recent work, Miller has written what he terms eco-systemic music. Through the use of found environmental sounds, subsequent analysis of those sounds, and the establishment of paradigms within the structure of the music, Miller builds musical structures that mimic ecosystems in the way they function. The music on 'Ghost Layers' manifests these characteristics of Miller’s music in ensemble pieces that balance kinetic intensity with subtle examinations of pitch and timbre.

Those already familiar with Miller and/or TAK Ensemble will likely not be surprised with 'Ghost Layers' overall, but within each piece there is a certain amount of subtlety that may cause some chin-stroking. Beginning with "Accretion," (9:19), a lively orchestral piece with nearly all hands on deck, seemingly freeform chaos gives way to a kind of order of a series of little playful events. Originally written for Estonian based Ensemble U, "Accretion" grew out of initial field recordings Miller made in 2015 of waterfalls on the Grand Portage Trail and ice floes in the Grand Marais Bay. That becomes evident 2/3 through the piece as the sound of water transforms "Accretion" into an ambient work with drones and gentle orchestration. "Eidolon" was inspirited by a transatlantic flight Miller took, and the phantom sounds he thought he heard during it. Beginning with a (cabin) drone, there are occasional seatbelt pings, and lengthy woodwind notes, cymbal zizzes, light percussive tapping, and other elements that could be considered ghostly. The drone turns to airline hum and you really do get the feeling that you're flying. This piece is extraordinarily well done, and you might not feel like flying for a while after listening to it.

"Chimera No. 2" is a duet (or perhaps a duel) between the electronics of Scott L. Miller and the violin of Marina Kifferstein. If it was a duel, Kifferstein wins hands down on a TKO dominating the piece, although Miller gets in some good shots himself. That isn't the point here however; it's spatialization as the lines between the acoustic and the electronic are frequently blurred throughout. “Katabasis” (for Four Instruments, More or Less) is the only purely acoustic work on the recording. It consists of three parts – 1. Relaxed but Persistent (5:01); 2. With Direction, Not Urgency (6:15); 3. Brittle and Delicate, With Precision. On 1, Charlotte Mundy's voice serves as drone mirroring Kifferstein’s minimal violin to some degree. This is by far the most minimal aspect of ‘Ghost Layers.’ Part 2 begins with Mundy humming a melody into which the woodwinds follow at a safe distance. There are occasional elements of percussion, minimal, discreet and subdued. There’s an aura of melancholy here, and the general impression is akin to surveying a post apocalyptic scene. Part 4 is a series of combined held tones with rests that seemed more like an academic exercise than anything else and failed (in my mind) to resolve the dichotomy with voice and instruments.

Ending with “Lovely Little Monster,” the listener is jarred from the passivity of the previous piece with a tumult of percussive elements and expressive woodwinds chirping, hooting and cawing like birds in trees while Miller’s electronics add nearly cartoonish elements, making this a rather fun excursion into the absurd. ‘Ghost Layers’ is a multifaceted work that would be really hard to pin down into a unified theme. Miller and the TAK Ensemble seem to work very well together and while not every composition on the album was my particular cup of tea, I found the majority of it very enjoyable and rewarding, and it’s hard to ask for more than that.
Artist: Teho Teardo
Title: Ellipses Dans L'Harmonie
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Specula Records
Rated: *****
Italian composer/producer Teho Teardo (founder of Meathead and the composing half of the Teho Teardo / Blixa Bargeld duo that has gifted us 4 beautiful records so far) just released his latest solo album "Ellipses Dans L'Harmonie", which is a homage to the 1751 Enlightenment Manifesto "L’Encyclopédie" by Diderot & D’Alembert. The story goes that Teho discovered the many volumes of this encyclopedia at the Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in Milan (Feltrinelli is known mostly in Italy as one of the biggest book publishers, but its Foundation also hosts an impressive catalogue of antique books dating back centuries) and that he randomly picked up one of the volumes which included a number of scores that exemplify how to work with musical elements such as counterpoint, cadence, harmony and so on and so forth. This long forgotten book served as the inspiration to write new music around the audible archive of lost memories that Teardo recorded at the Villa Manin Passariano (near Udine) and the Fondazione Pietá de Turchini in Naples in 2018 with a slew of talented classically trained musicians from Italy plus a special appearance by cellist Erik Friedlander (with whom Teardo made an album in 2006 inspired by poet Pasolini).

The music in the 10 tracks that make up this beautiful album is dense with subtle arrangments that weave the memory of the unknown and reference the holism of those books that most of us have never seen. If you know Teho's albums with Einsurzende Neubauten's singer Blixa Bargeld you'll recognize his style in writing great string arrangements (like the slow and voluptuous glissandos of "Chant Primitif" or the imposing staggered harmonized pizzicatos of "Systehme de Mr Kirnberger" with its ambiguously looped harpsichord), but this album goes way beyond that and strides along post middle ages classical music, ensemble chamber music as well as a certain "new music" aesthetics (listen to the flute lines in "Césures Rélatives" with its beautiful billowing bass clarinet tones).

The opener "Cadence Féminine" quickly develops from a treated percussive piano and strings dance that almost reminded me Anthony Pateras' Tetema project (with Patton) into a full blown electro-industrial thumper that immediately sets the tone for the album and at once reminds you of who Teardo is, what he does, and the entire sonic palette he's capable to conjure.
But, after the first i'm-here-and-i-mean-business opening track, the album takes a quieter turn, a much more chamber-like dimension that feels very organic and acoustic, and at times is even almost completely devoid of electronic-sounding timbres (except for sonic treatments applied in post). It's almost as if throughout the album Teho slowly peels away more layers to reveal a more minimalistic nature, maybe in an attempt to get to the very core of the writings of this book, focusing more and more on its true essence, letting the juicy marbling fat that we all love slowly drip away to reveal the bones that symbolize the historical and political age of this publication, all the way to the final melancholic reveal...

The orchestral closing title track's somber crescendo/decrescendo swells remind of a similarly moving "Kol Nidre" composition by John Zorn and of some apocalyptic Jóhann Jóhannsson film scores... It almost acts as a reminder of how the inspiration for this album was conjured out of dust and darkness and in doing so is returned to the fog of historical memory, almost with a sense of abandonment and resignation, maybe as to remind ourselves of the age of darkness and obscurantism that the book in question tried to fight, but that three centuries later, we are still grappling with...
Artist: Langbard
Title: Remnants Part One
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: 6913 Digital
“Remnants” is a four track EP of two fairly distinct halves. The first two tracks, “Kroma” and “Buurn”, are instrumental melodic techno with a gentle, synth, spacious flavour. The simple but endearing bouncy melody on the former and the expressive lower lead synth rises and falls on the latter make them DJ-friendly in a progressive, mid-set way- not entirely flat, but neither particularly dramatic.

“Precipice” and the title track are also techno, and essentially have the same ingredients, but with a clearer darker flavour from the off. Thicker, pounding kick drums and a classic acid line on “Precipice” make it quite indulgent in a retro way, placing it somewhere in the mid to early 90’s, but it’s a winning formula and I’m always happy to hear it. The title track is not quite so dark, flipping back round melodically to the lighter tones of the earlier tracks, but here the darkness comes from other sources- the rumbling bassline, and the long-ish and quite abstract breakdown with ghostly voices.

As well as providing no info about the artist, the promo pack mis-spelled “Remnants” as “Remanants” more often than not. If you can’t find it searching “Remnants”, try “Remanants”, in case it’s been distributed under the wrong title too. Apparently this is the first in a series, so hopefully the spelling question will be cleared up by part two! It’s a pedantic spelling point but it’s a point worth making, as it IS worth seeking out this EP.
Artist: Clarice Jensen
Title: The Experience Of Repetition As Death
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: 130701/Fatcat Records
Brooklyn-based cellist Clarice Jensen has recorded and performed with an impressive range of artists, notably Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter, Björk, and many more. Her second album “The Experience Of Repetition As Death” was recorded in late 2018- not long after Jóhannsson’s death- and whether deliberately or not, it feels very influenced by that composer’s work, as well as drawing Philip Glass comparisons at times.

What’s remarkable about this album is that it’s entirely created on a cello, but through an impressive and deft use of effects and layering, it ends up sounding like an entire ensemble work of multiple instruments, both acoustic and synthetic. The ‘proper’ cello sound does not get preferential treatment, although it is certainly integral to pieces like the beautiful sign-off piece “Final”. But if you weren’t explicitly told it was all cello-sourced in the liner notes, there’s a strong chance you might not realise.

“Day Tonight” exemplifies the overall sound neatly in a twelve-minute, self-contained form, with its rotating array of star elements ranging from choral-like hums at the beginning, through to short acoustic melodic loops towards the end, always accompanied by more familiar-sounding super-long plaintive string sounds.

The Philip Glass influence is most noticeable in “Holy Mother”, with its relentless organ-like chord arpeggios sounding very much like the “Koyaanisqatsi” bonus track you never heard before.

It’s certainly quite conventional, and doesn’t push on experimentally in any way from some of the composers mentioned above, but overall it’s a beautiful, velvet-like album of rich comforting sonics. It might be just the tonic people need in these troubled times.
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