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Tim Hawkinson: Uberorgan (2001)

"Uberorgan [is] a work by Los-Angeles based artist Tim Hawkinson, commissioned by MASS MoCA for its Building 5 Gallery, which is nearly 300’ long. Possibly the largest indoor sculpture ever created, Uberorgan was a massive musical instrument, a Brobdingnagian bastard cousin of the bagpipe, the player piano and the pipe organ. It consisted of thirteen bus-sized inflated bags, one for each of the twelve tones in the musical scale and one udder-shaped bag that fed air to the other twelve by long tubular ducts.” (Source: The above video is from the Uberorgan installation in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2007.)

October 18, 2012, 1:54pm

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Matmos: “Rainbow Flag”

From the album Supreme Balloon (2008)

The American electronica group Matmos is anchored by the duo M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, who form the nucleus of a protean musical collective that has enjoyed the collaboration of many illustrious musicians, including Björk, Sun Ra collaborator Marshall Allen, and vintage electronics guru Keith Fullerton Whitman.

Matmos made a name for themselves beginning in the late 1990s with their imaginative and exquisitely musical collages of recorded sounds. Combining rigorous sonic empiricism with a Dada-esque search for the absurd, the group’s self-assembled catalog of samples reads like a Borgesian taxonomy of the bizarre:

Amplified crayfish nerve tissue, the pages of bibles turning, water hitting copper plates, liposuction surgery, cameras and VCRs, chin implant surgery, contact microphones on human hair, rat cages, tanks of helium, a cow uterus, human skulls, snails, cigarettes, cards shuffling, laser eye surgery, whoopee cushions, balloons, latex fetish clothing, rhinestones, Polish trains, insects, life support systems, inflatable blankets, rock salt, solid gold coins, the sound of a frozen stream thawing in the sun, a five gallon bucket of oatmeal.

Having built their reputation on their skillful deployment of “found sounds,” Matmos took a surprising turn with their 2008 album Supreme Balloon, which eschews meticulous sample-work for the lush, rubbery tones of old-school synthesizers and drum machines. (The album comes with the disclaimer “no microphones were used at any point.”) Among the diverse menagerie of instruments heard here are the mysterious “Electronic Voice Instrument” and the one-of-a-kind Coupigny modular synthesizer housed at the studios of INA-GRM in Paris.

The catchy and charming flavor of Supreme Balloon is at times reminiscent of the music of Felix Kubin. But there are plenty of proverbial razor blades in this colorful candy, and more than enough sonic weirdness to avoid alienating devotees of their earlier and more experimental work.

Played 205 time(s).

October 07, 2012, 9:40pm

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Wolfgang Rihm: Excerpt from Jagden und Formen (1996-2001)

From the album Jagden und Formen (Ensemble Modern, conducted by Dominique My)

The phrase of a French critic writing about Italian opera around 1700 has long stuck with me. Describing its daring (and to French ears, undisciplined) style, he states that the music “owes its greatest beauties to those irregularities which seemed to threaten it with destruction.” This lovely expression often comes back to mind when I hear the music of the German composer Wolfgang Rihm.

Emerging in the mid-1970s, Rihm’s music could be seen as a highly idiosyncratic reaction the dominant midcentury modernism of Stockhausen, Boulez, and company. Though hardly listener-friendly in his own work, Rihm emphatically rejected the restrictions and dogmas that characterized much of the serial and post-serial composition of the postwar decades. (“You can’t make art with taboos,” he quipped.) His search for a more intuitive, direct, and viscerally expressive form of music corresponded to Theodor Adorno’s call for “informal music,” an approach to composition in which the rigors modernism have been absorbed and internalized, allowing the music to attain an organic wholeness without abandoning structural rigor.

Much of Rihm’s music can be heard as a late-20th-century reckoning with the Austro-German romantic tradition, from Beethoven through Brahms and Mahler to the Second Viennese School. This musical heritage surfaces in Rihm’s work in various ways, sometimes quoted directly, more often alluded to or subtly invoked. His openness toward the resonance of musical tradition, however, should not be mistaken with the conciliatory stance of a “neo-romantic”: the historical fragments in Rihm’s music are often disturbingly out of place and unsettling in their effect.

Jadgen und Formen (Hunts and Forms), a 55-minute work for orchestra, bears many of the hallmarks of Rihm’s style, characterized above all by the masterful pacing of textural shifts and a frantic expressive immediacy that leaves the listener gasping for breath. As Seth Brodsky poetically elaborates:

Form in Rihm’s music, the score’s path from first to last measure, acquires the unclassifiable as the contours of a violent spill; shape is dictated by a kind of creative emergency. A Rihm work does not develop; it survives, as if just un-caged, and goes wherever it can in order to keep going.

Played 329 time(s).

August 26, 2012, 9:13pm

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Tokyo Gakuso: “Saibara: Koromogae”

From the album Gagaku and Beyond (2000)

Gagaku is an ancient form of court music from Japan. It is thought to be the oldest continually performed ensemble music in the world. Used in religious ceremonies or to accompany performances of dance or Noh theater, the music is characterized by the unfolding of stately pentatonic melodies played by wind instruments (and, in this example, doubled by vocalists). The shō or mouth organ provides a distinctive harmonic wash, while the meter is marked by plucked strings and a shakubyoshi (clapper) played by the lead singer.

Saibara is a genre of folk song arranged for the gagaku ensemble. The genre stems from the Heian period (roughly the 9th to 12th centuries A.D.) but its roots lie in yet earlier traditions. It is not to be confused with saibari, a genre of Shinto music intended for the entertainment of the gods.

The incandescent, beam-like sonorities of the gagaku ensemble and the drastically slow pace of the music combine to create an effect of imposing—even terrifying—gravity. Many 20th-century composers have been inspired to write their own interpretations of gagaku music, including Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Olivier Messiaen, and Pierre Barbaud.

"Listening to gagaku is a history lesson in sound…. It is one of the clearest adumbrations left of the grandeur and artistic taste of the court of ancient Japan." (William Malm, Japanese Music, p. 104)

Played 303 time(s).

June 29, 2012, 9:18pm

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Algorithmic Music for the Masses: WolframTones

A brainchild of British mathematician Stephen Wolfram, WolframTones is an online application that creates musical scores from the patterns generated by one-dimensional cellular automata. A few parameters determine the rules followed by the automata, and thus control in a very general way the structure of the resulting music, which can be further customized by adjusting certain musical settings, such as the behavior or voices and the scale.

WolframTones is based on the thesis laid out in Wolfram’s 2002 book A New Kind of Science, that simple sets of rules (algorithms) can generate highly complex results. According to Wolfram, by exploring all possible configurations through computational modeling it is possible to map out the underlying structure of the universe, which is in essence digital. In musical terms, the promise of this kind of program seems to lie in its ability to generate musical forms that transcend our compositional imagination. At the same time, Wolfram suggests, these artificial products might bear a profound resemblance to the deep structures of nature:

In some ways WolframTones compositions are like objects in nature: their features emerge from specified underlying rules. So if the form of a sunset, a tree, or a mollusk shell is meaningful, then so can a WolframTones composition be.

Upon hearing your first composition rendered via your computer’s internal MIDI soundset, you may ask yourself, “Is this it?” The rather limited musical customization options, particularly with regard to rhythm, and the weak MIDI timbres mean that you’re not going to be creating algorithmic masterpieces right out of the box, so to speak. However, WolframTones has great potential as a means of producing musical “raw material” which can be crafted into something more presentable via a software MIDI editor and some decent sound sources.

Two major complaints: Wolfram Research, Inc. maintains a rather draconian degree of control over the music created by WolframTones, preventing you (among other things) from “broadcasting, publishing, or publicly performing” your algorithmic tunes. Second,  to export your work as a MIDI file you have to send it to yourself as an email, which is an extremely cumbersome alternative to simply downloading it directly.

Much more information is available on the WolframTones website


Some algorithmically generated scores, courtesy of WolframTones

February 01, 2012, 6:00am

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Felix Kubin: “Psyko Billy”

From the album Matki Wandalki (2004)

The musical production of Felix Kubin (born 1969 in Hamburg) ricochets between the two poles of experimental, post-futurist sound art and “psycho sci-fi pop,” often within the same track. Veteran of numerous musical projects, from the early 80s punk group “Die Egozentrische Zwei” (whose recordings were later released as “The Tetchy Teenage Tapes of Felix Kubin”) to Klangkrieg, a noise-collage duo with Tim Buhre started in 1987, Kubin cites among his formative influences the music of Sun Ra, Stockhausen, and Throbbing Gristle.

As befits a self-described dadaist, Kubin has maintained an aura of absurd mystery around his life and musical activities. His personal website has not been updated for six years, and in any event contains mostly breathless mock-publicity boilerplate about the remarkable musical career of the “whirlwind wizard of the ivories.” A substantial—and apparently sincere—feature on Kubin appeared in the now-defunct Acetone Magazine in 2005. Here he states: “Of course I know that my existence is ridiculous like everyone else’s. But I cannot lead a life with this knowledge on my forehead, so I pretend that it is different and make myself believe it.”

In addition to his prolific recordings, Kubin has created a number of radio plays, sound installations, and other artistic undertakings of a more…speculative nature, such as the “Pataphysical Tape Club.” In 1998 he founded Gagarin Records, named after the famous Russian cosmonaut and specializing in “Futurist pop, Anti-Music, Electronic Surgery, Walls of Waltz, Unnerving Beauty, Sound and Radio Art, Preußen-Noise.” A recent release, entitled Historische Aufnahmen, Vol. 1 (Historic Recordings), purports to capture such fantastic phonographic phenomena as the electrical impulses of plankton and Friedrich Trautwein’s demonstration of his Trautonium for Joseph Goebbels.


Played 249 time(s).

October 06, 2011, 10:54pm

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Pascal Comelade: “The Hallucinogenic Espontex Sinfonia”

From the album Espontex Sinfonia (2006)

Pascal Comelade is a French Catalan musician whose work has explored a variegated yet highly distinctive constellation of sounds and styles. His first album, released under the title Fluence (1975), was heavily influenced by the Euro-prog work of such pioneers as Richard Pinhas (of Heldon), who made a cameo appearance playing guitar on the record’s opening track. (The collaboration between the two musicians would be revisited in the 2000 album Oblique Sessions, Vol. 2.)

Beginning in the early 1980s, with albums such as Logique du sens (1983), Comelade’s music went in a more tuneful direction, developing a style that mixed the repetitive tonal patterns of American minimalism, a mood of wistful nostalgia, and distinctive orchestrations that make heavy use of toy instruments. The extended jams of his early records gives way to quirky, laconic character pieces

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Comelade released a prolific set of recordings as the bandleader of the Bel Canto Orquestra, a seven-piece group that juxtaposes the sound of cheap, plastic instruments with the more conventional piano, violin and guitar. With time, the sound of his music diverged from the gritty, one-take aesthetic of the earlier work into more polished compositions that occasionally skirt the border between new-age and film music—for instance, the lovely piano piece “Nocturn, à Joan Salvat-Papasseit" on Topographie anecdotique (1992).

Comelade’s diverse output is unified by an inventive melodic spark and the consistent pursuit of clear, simple arrangements and colorful orchestrations. Both of these qualities are on display in this buoyant overture to his 2006 album Espontex Sinfonia.

Played 119 time(s).

August 09, 2011, 11:44am

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Henry Threadgill’s Zooid: “Do the Needful”

From the album Up Popped the Two Lips (2002)

Back in June, Ars Nova Workshop put on a fabulous festival called Great Black Music here in Philadelphia. The last concert of the bunch featured a piece for saxophone quartet called “Background” by the American composer, instrumentalist, and bandleader Henry Threadgill (b. Chicago, 1944). Performed with aplomb by the Collide Quartet, “Background” blasted me out my seat with blaring fusillades of quasi-vocal lamentations interspersed with precise, metronomic passages of demented machine music reminiscent of Iannis Xenakis’s contribution to the sax quartet genre, Xas

Threadgill, a chameleonlically versatile alumnus of the Chicago experimental jazz collective AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) has made music under the auspices of a variety of names and configurations over the last 40 years, including Air, The Henry Threadgill Sextet, and Very Very Circus. The most recent of these groups is a sextet entitled Zooid, comprising—along with Threadgill’s saxophone/flute—tuba, guitar, cello, drums, and bass.

Zooid’s music on Up Popped the Two Lips is angular, often atonal, and undeniably groovy. It’s as if the fleeting free-jazz passages in Mr. Bungle have been dilated to delicious, six-minute mini-symphonies. Too mercurial to have been composed, too damnably coherent to have been entirely improvised: how such a balance is struck—let alone maintained over the substantial length of Threadgill’s tracks—is a miracle of art that I strain to comprehend. 

Henry Threadgill

Played 50 time(s).

July 09, 2011, 10:52am

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Guillermo Gregorio: “Tres”

From the album Degrees of Iconicity (2000)

Guillermo Gregorio has led two chronologically and stylistically distinct musical lives. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Gregorio got into jazz as a teenager. He played cornet and clarinet before settling on alto sax. In 1958 Gregorio studied for several months with the composer Alberto Ginastera, who introduced the young musician to experimental tendencies in music such as Pierre SchaefferIvan Wyschnegradsky, and Anton Webern. Gregorio also had a strong interest in visual arts, and he studied architecture at Buenos Aires University from 1959 to 1966. Concurrently, in the mid-60s, he made his first experimental recordings, a number of pieces of “musique brut” a la Jean Dubuffet, empoying ready-to-hand objects and tape manipulation. Gregorio called these pieces musicas caseras (homemade music). He also began exploring free improvisation, inspired in particular by such jazz pioneers as Lennie Tristano and Ornette Coleman. In 1969, after attending a concert by Larry Austin, Gregorio and several cohorts founded the Fluxus-inspired Movimento Música Más, a free-form performance collective in which Gregorio was involved until 1972. Música Más sought to bring experimental music into public spaces, staging musical events in places such as parks and city buses. (These early efforts are documented in the album Otra Musica: Tape Music, Fluxus, and Free Improvisation in Buenos Aires 1963-70.)

There was a hiatus in Gregorio’s musical career from 1973-1980. In the 80s he came into contact with the Austrian jazz musician Franz Koglmann, with whom he made his first commercial recordings.  Gregorio left Buenos Aires in 1986 and eventually ended up in Chicago (via Cologne) in 1991, where he has established himself with a number of different ensembles and released a series of distinctive records exploring an idiosyncratic brand of avant-jazz. Not surprisingly, given his background, Gregorio’s music bears a strong influence to 20th-century visual arts, particular the branches of Constructivism and Concrete Art. Gregorio’s titles have included allusions to artists such as Theo van DoesburgLaszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Alexander Rodchenko, as well as to the Argentinian abstract art movement known as MADI. Further, he has notated a number of his compositions in the form of graphic scores whose aesthetic bears a striking resemblance to the visual language of geometric and abstract art. (See examples below.) Gregorio places the aesthetics of his work firmly in this tradition, stating that “the primary function of an artwork, musical or visual, should be to appeal to and make an impact on the mind. I know that my aim will be labeled ‘cerebral.’ But I prefer that rather than talking about ‘self-expression.’ The illusion of rendering the ‘self’ is typical of the tendencies that mystify any contact with reality…. What I inherit from Constructive Art is the opposition to the Romantic aesthetics of pure intuition, inspiration, or the ‘mystery of creation’ and ultimately, to the pretension of placing oneself above historical reality.”

Like much of his music, “Tres” features the juxtaposition of free-flowing jazzlike melodies and blocks of relative stasis in which time is dilated by means of sustained tones, silence, and extended instrumental techniques. The form of the piece is derived from a geometrically-inspired manipulation of the notes of the first motif (played by the cello in the first bars). “Geometry is used as a structural force so as to bring creative imagination into an orderly system,” Gregorio writes. “Constructive artists have always understood that rational developments, based on mathematical or geometrical reasoning, may lead to results that border on the paradoxical and the unexpected.”



Examples of Gregorio’s graphic scores

Played 50 time(s).

February 20, 2011, 9:50am

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Alva Noto: u_08

From the album Unitxt (2008)

The German musician Carsten Nicolai is one of the most prolific and fascinating contemporary figures working in the fertile territory between the experimental and popular wings of electronic music.  Nicolai’s music, created primarily under the stage name Alva Noto, undermines the pretentious self-absorption of electronic “art” music by making it dance, and attacks the cozy vibes of popular electronica by disrupting its carefree grooves with rhythmic twitches and replacing its polished sounds with lovingly crafted cacophonies of digital noise.

Nicolai’s music ranges virtuosically from minimal atmospheric drones and whispers, to lush textures of unrecognizably altered samples, to spastic glitch-funk orgies. In his sonic vocabulary, with its predilection for pure sine tones, raw waveforms, and blasts of white noise, I hear a link to the seminal productions of elektronische Musik created at the studios of West German Radio in Cologne in the early 1950s. In contemporary terms, Nicolai’s work bears a strong affinity to the electronic music of the Finnish duo Pan Sonic. (Nicolai collaborated with Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio on the 1997 album Mikro Makro and the 2001 release Wohltemperiert.)

In 1996, Nicolai founded the record label Raster-Noton, on which many of his subsequent releases have appeared.  He has also been active as an multimedia installation artist: his work in this regard spans music, image, and spatial design, and includes the 2004 piece syn chron, described as a “an integral sculpture of light, sound, and architecture.”

Played 70 time(s).

January 06, 2011, 10:25am

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Syzygys: “Rimsky Train”

From the album The Complete Studio Recordings (2003)

"A female duo who plays microtonal pop music," the Japanese band Syzygys is the project of Hitomi Shimizu (keyboards) and Hiromi Nishida (violin).  (The band’s name, presumably an alternative plural of the polysemic word "syzygy,” comes from a Greek root meaning “conjunction.”)

Like all good music, that of Syzygys defies description: it is at once familiar and strange. Many of the gestures are redolent of that ubiquitous but unnameable modern idiom of composition heard in incidental music for popular media, but a subversive and experimental element is also always present— and in this way the music of Syzygys is comparable to the otherwise very different work of, say, Raymond Scott.

The delightful weirdness of this music derives in part from the completely ingenuous fusion of catchy pop song elements with the hauntingly unfamiliar sonorities of a 43-note just intonation scale invented by Harry Partch.  Shizimu plays a modified electric reed organ tuned this scale.  (Across the top of the band’s homepage there is a “playable” 43-note keyboard.  A classy touch.)

If this music sounds like the somewhat deranged soundtrack of a forgotten Nintendo game, it’s not coincidental: Shimizu has done the music for several titles for the Sony PlayStation.  She’s also a prolific composer for film and TV.

Played 139 time(s).

August 19, 2010, 12:01am

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James Tenney: Spectrum 6 (2001), for flute, clarinet, percussion, violin, and cello (excerpt)

From the album Spectrum Pieces

In his series of eight compositions bearing the title Spectrum (1995-2001), the brilliant American composer and theorist James Tenney embarked on a new exploration of the musical potential of the harmonic series, a phenomenon that had inspired him throughout his career.

While in many of his earlier works based on the harmonic series, such as his Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow (1974) or Septet for six electric guitars and electric bass (1981), Tenney had methodically introduced the partials in an upward sweep from the fundamental, in the Spectrum pieces the pitches of the series are used all at once.  If the effect of his earlier music had been strongly tonal, thanks to the emphasis on the lower partials of the spectrum, these later works betray their harmonic foundations only in fleeting glimmers; the dominant mood is ungrounded and suggestive.

All the spectrum pieces are written in “time-space” notation, meaning that the duration of each note is determined not by its shape (half note, quarter note, etc.) but by its visually-measured length on the staff, each line of which in this case lasts exactly 30 seconds.  Tenney used a computer program which allowed him to steer the general parameters (density, register, etc.) while the computer automatically generated the actual notes.  This is the principle of stochastic processes, or constrained randomness, which was introduced into music in the 1950s by Iannis Xenakis.

Tenney’s Spectrum pieces sound to me like a distant echo of the most disembodied textures of the early 20th-century Austrian composer Anton Webern: the tones seem to float serenely in a rarefied space, expressive of something profound yet wordless.  

Played 80 time(s).

August 15, 2010, 1:00pm

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The Tone Generation

Covering the “analogue age,” from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1970s, with a focus on the third quarter of the century, “The Tone Generation” is a 20-part radio series on the history of electronic music written by the British audio-visual artist Ian Helliwell.  Each episode is a 30-minute exploration of a particular scene: the first ten investigate different geographical areas, while episodes 11-20 take up various themes such as “Electronics and Jazz,” “Computer Music,” and “Electronics for Expos.”  This format conveys a sense of the global dynamics of the art form which are too often occluded by the dominance of the France-Germany-USA axis, while also delving into important topics that transcend geographical boundaries.

The music featured is well-chosen and often quite rare (there are several pieces I have not been able to locate elsewhere).  The balance between music and narration is not always ideal; sometimes I wanted more historical context for the sounds I was hearing.  Still, in its ambitious scope and its creative use of the medium, “The Tone Generation” is an impressive accomplishment, and a worthwhile listening experience for those fascinated by the early history of electronic music.

August 12, 2010, 10:07am

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Samuel Beckett: “Molloy I & II”

From the album "…the Whole Thing’s Coming out of the Dark" (2000)

An imaginative recording based on three texts by arch-modernist writer Samuel Beckett (Molloy, Company, and L’Image).

Beckett produced a number of radio plays among his literary works, and he always had an acute concern for the sonic dimension of his writing.   The title of this album is taken from a phrase he used to describe the uncanny quality of radiophonic listening.  Beckett’s disembodied voices sound out the vast, unlit spaces of the existential condition.

Played 231 time(s).

March 25, 2010, 9:27am

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