Blog

Holly Herndon’s ‘Proto’ at the Volksbühne Berlin

Following the release of her latest album Proto in May, Holly Herndon took to the Volksbühne last night with producer Mat Dryhurst and her Ensemble for the Berlin premiere of the album’s AV live show. This strongly collaborative record looks to create ‘new forms of communion’, to add a human touch to electronic music production. It combines traditional vocal music with rich electronic processing and features the first steps of Herndon’s very own musical A.I. baby, Spawn.

That the Proto live show was conceived with similar themes in mind was very clear. Throughout, I had the feeling of being invited to participate, rather than to watch. The performers were placed right at the back of the Volksbühne’s domed stage, allowing the audience to mill around freely on the main part of the stage. It made the cavernous space intimate and direct. For those further back in the seated area, it turned the audience members into performers, staging a show within a show.

The aim of humanising (musical) technology is not uncommon among electronic musicians, but Herndon’s commitment to this goes beyond most. The group of singers that form the ensemble around Herndon are the clearest manifestation of this. Surrounding her in a loose semi-circle, they made a palpable connection to the crowd. Sweeping performances of tracks like single ‘Eternal’, the rousing ‘Frontier’ and ’Chorus’ from Herndon’s Platform album, showed off their versatility through wailing and hocketing, displaying the kind of virtuosity that goes missing in many other live electronics performances.

While the communal feel was strong throughout, a definite highlight was Herndon’s solo vocoder performance for ‘Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt’. Perhaps the most immediate track on the album, Herndon performed it doused in a cold, white spotlight – yet it still felt warm and expressive. A couple of times I felt that Proto could have more such moments of detail among its broader strokes. Tracks such as ‘Last Gasp’ and ‘SWIM’ ran the risk of becoming a wash of sound in their live versions.

Sadly, we didn’t get to hear from Spawn on this occasion, but the Volksbühne crowd were recorded singing call-and-response patterns to be used in her training. A room of people singing folk music to create a vocal model with which to train a neural network? Definitely a new form of communion.

mde

Albums of 2018

Here’s a brief round-up of some of my favourite albums from this past year across contemporary classical music and experimental pop!

Hatis Noit: Illogical Dance
March 2018, Erased Tapes

An intriguing four-track EP from this enigmatic Japanese (and now London based) artist. The opening work, ‘Angelus Novus’, spans several soundworlds, a beguiling mix of Gregorian chant, traditional Japanese and Bulgarian vocal music and visceral electronics. Hatis Noit’s vocals seethe and soar, truly a force to be reckoned with. ‘Anagram C.I.Y’ is altogether different, taking up the vocal styles from the first track but putting the electronic production in focus to create a dizzying, choppy mix with sounds pinging all over the place (listen with headphones!). ‘Illogical Lullaby’ strips things back again, moving gently through intertwining vocal phrases. The EP also includes the Matmos remix of ‘Illogical Lullaby’, an inventive reimagination of the original.

Miolina: Miolina
February 2018, Composers Concordance

This is the debut album from violin duo, Miolina, formed by Lynn Bechtold and Mioi Takeda in 2012.  It showcases a colourful mix of compositions, ranging from the frantically virtuosic ‘Shibuya Tokyo’ by Karen Tanaka, to the drone-based musings of Jeff Myers’ ‘TAG’ and onwards to the stuttering groove of Judd Greenstein’s ‘ILL’. Particular highlights are the two works by Bechtold herself. ‘Away/Home 1.2’ muses on missing home and missing being away, fusing Japanese nature sounds with the bustle of New York and snippets of childhood music. The closing work is Bechtold’s fleeting arrangement of a lament by turn-of-the-century English composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor’s melody floats in a hazy bubble of electronics, distant and haunting. All in all, a multifaceted, thoughtful debut.

Sudan Archives: Sink
May 2018, Stones Throw

This EP is the second release from Sudan Archives, the stage name of L.A. based singer and violinist, Brittney Parks. A little glossier than the Sudan Archives record from last year, it’s still full of her trademark violin riffs, Sudanese folk influences and sharp lyrics. ‘Pay Attention’ skids along, matching a skipping, crunchy beat to choir samples. ‘Mind Control’ is a contrast, glassy and breathy, ‘Escape’ a triumphant closer. But little matches the irresistible lilt of lead single ‘Nont for Sale’. It’s fresh, confident and full of summery swagger: ‘This is my light, don’t block the sun/This is my seat, can’t you tell?’

Tirzah: Devotion
August 2018, Domino

I’d been hoping vocalist Tirzah and producer Mica Levi (a.k.a. Micachu) would bring out a full-length album soon, after their three EPs for the Greco-Roman imprint, I’m Not Dancing (2013), No Romance (2014) and Make it Up (2015).  Devotion is another original collaboration from these two school friends. The whole album has a rusty, lo-fi sheen that complements Tirzah’s freestyled meditations on love and commitment. The opening track, ’Fine Again’, drifts around expansively, setting a dreamy pace that seeps through most of the record, such as on ‘Say When’, the hypnotic ‘Do You Know’ and ’Affection’, with its stark piano loop. The pair mix their own cloudy blend of scuffed pop, dance and soul, with glimpses of Levi’s contemporary classical background appearing every now and then, like in the angular piano riff that grounds the title track.

Third Coast Percussion: Paddle to the Sea
February 2018, Çedille

A sprawling collection of works on the theme of water, Paddle to the Sea is the latest release from the Grammy Award-winning percussion quartet. It’s centred around the group’s own composition of that name, a score for the 1966 film adaptation of the children’s book, ’Paddle-To-The-Sea’, by Holling C. Holling. While the score traces the narrative of the film, it definitely makes for a captivating listen on its own. Its nine movements are rich in timbral exploration and wind creatively through a number of recurring ideas, at times building momentum gradually (as in ‘Flow’), at times invigorating and urgent (as in the climactic ‘Niagara’). Around the other works on the disc, the beautiful arrangement of the Shona traditional ‘Chigwaya’ by Musekiwa Chingodza and Jacob Druckman’s shimmering ‘Reflections on the Nature of Water’, the ensemble have interspersed four newly arranged movements from Philip Glass’ ‘Aguas da Amazonia’. This set of pieces has had many lives – but Third Coast Percussion’s version sounds crisp and original. ‘Madeira River’ and ‘Amazon River’ in particular are breathtaking bookends to the album, the former leaning deliciously in to the curve of Glass’ yearning chord sequence each time it comes round, the latter closing out the record with an enveloping glow.

Audience Research at the Ultima Festival, Oslo

This post originally appeared on the Ulysses Network website.

I’m heading back from my final Ulysses audience research trip to the Ultima Festival in Oslo, Norway’s main annual contemporary music festival. I conducted the very last survey of the project at this installation by German composer Alexander Schubert. Since I’m aiming to explore the reception of different concert formats, I wanted to include at least one event that completely breaks with the standard concert setup. Schubert’s work Control provided ample opportunity to investigate this. Taking on themes of surveillance and manipulation, audience members were let into the installation in groups of four, wearing headsets and VR goggles. Nothing was projected onto the goggles, instead these were used to support a camera and to restrict the participants’ peripheral vision. Once inside, the participants received instructions over the headset from a controller who could view the footage from their participant’s camera. They were told to move through the space and, as far as possible, interact with the performers, who were distributed in different darkened rooms in the sprawling basement of the former Norwegian National Gallery. While the performers never spoke to the participants and also had their faces obscured with goggles, all sorts of different and strange interactions took place, from having to copy yoga-style positions in an eerily lit room to lying down in a gloomy tent with the instruction to close one’s eyes and relax (as happened to me).

In the second part, the participants became the people controlling, giving instructions to the next batch of audience members before emerging from the basement and becoming ‘observers’ – in a room upstairs, the footage from all four participants’ journeys was being relayed on live screens along with the audio from the controllers. It was also possible to buy an observer ticket and just watch the installation from this room, from which, as was probably Schubert’s intention, it would have been hard to tell who was really ‘performing’ and who just ‘participating’.

All in all, a provocative and unsettling work with multiple ways of engaging with it. I handed out the questionnaire to both participants and observers as they exited the venue. From this, I got 88 responses from the 100 audience members who attended across the two days the installation was open, 23 from observers and 65 from participants. The questionnaire had two questions that were asked in addition to the main set I’ve asked at every other survey. The first of these was aimed to investigate the immersive/interactive dimension to the piece and was differently phrased for participants and observers, asking participants whether they’d enjoyed being able to interact with the performers and being a part of the work and asking observers if they would have preferred to participate. At a first glance, the responses seem very mixed, as might be expected for a work that certainly does not shy away from pushing audience members’ comfort zones. On the whole, it looks like most observers wouldn’t have wanted to participate on the basis of what they saw of the work, though some acknowledged they may not have been able to judge this sufficiently (‘Observation does not really give you [an] impression about the piece’). A lot of participants did say that they enjoyed being active in the work (‘unpleasant in a good way’ was one comment on this), which speaks to the possible gains of a format like this one, but others seemed to have reacted negatively to this aspect of this work.

For the second extra question, I wanted to see if the participants would report their experience as being more memorable than the observers (by asking both groups to rate their agreement with the statement ‘I had a memorable experience at Control’). I’ll have to look at this properly once the data is typed up but it seems as if observers were indeed slightly less likely to call their experience memorable. The result of this question will be interesting in discussing further what audiences can get from participatory formats – do they necessarily make more of an impact?

Another aspect that came up a few times in responses was the amount of information available about the work prior to the event. The composer had specifically requested that little information about the piece be released in advance, which made for some false expectations about the work and format. One response mentions expecting that the performers would be playing instruments (I had thought this too!), but this was not the case. Another comment highlighted quite precisely the difficult balance in giving enough information about a piece vs. keeping an artwork’s mystery: ‘I am really sad I didn’t know more about the piece before I came. At the same time, it felt exciting to not know anything. Unfortunately, it felt more like a scary movie than a music piece.’

dav

#freebrahms: the STEGREIF.orchester at Radialsystem V

Berlin’s STEGREIF.orchester is a collective of 30 young classical musicians with an unusual mission. They compose new versions of classical symphonies and perform them without scores or a conductor, aiming to free them of their baggage and bring them up close to new audiences. Their recent #freebeethoven and #freeschubert projects infused Beethoven’s 4th and Schubert’s 9th symphonies with dance and improvisation, to much acclaim.

On Saturday evening, I caught a performance of their latest work, #freebrahms, a choreographed reimagining of Brahms’ Third Symphony in F major. After being freed firstly of our shoes, the audience entered the smoke-filled (and sweltering) main hall to find the group clustered in the centre of the room, meditatively humming a version of the opening harmonies of the symphony. We were invited to sit in the stands or find a place on the floor around the musicians.

What ensued was a set of 15-minute versions of each of the four movements. Brahms’ themes would swell up every now and then and immediately be used as material for improvisation in a dizzying range of styles: klezmer-tinged clarinet, jazz guitar, a wailing cello and vocal solo. The clarinet melody from the 2nd movement merged into an extended saxophone solo, a clever way of subtly ‘updating’ it. The musicians were almost constantly in motion (cellists and bassist included!), dispersing into the stands, throwing themselves on the floor for sections at a time, the percussionists wheeling around on small platforms. A theatrical cello solo ended in the player tearing and biting his bow hair and then snapping the wood in half.

I found a lot of the choreography effective and in some moments, it brought out the strange and experimental elements in Brahms’ score. For instance, the players began the third movement processing around the small central stage with clunky, zombie-robot movements, emphasising the peculiarity of Brahms’ stop-start waltz.

All of this culminated in a crazy, exhilarating fourth movement, in which Brahms’ Hungarian inflections went through the STEGREIF blender and came out as salsa, complete with conga drums and cowbell. Something happened that has most definitely not occurred at any previous performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony: people got up and danced. They danced, they clapped rhythms back, they cheered. It was infectious.

I’m definitely not a Brahms purist. I think a lot of classical music is pretty danceable and that this repertoire needs to be treated flexibly: it can and should be chopped up and reblended. It’s also helpful to remember that improvisation by performers was often a part of compositions up until roughly the late 18th century and that some composers pre-Brahms did think about how to play with the physical setup of the performance (e.g. the close of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, where the players are directed to leave the stage one by one).

But the right balance between enriching reinvention and watering something down is difficult to achieve. At times, STEGREIF’s imaginative performance risked diluting itself into ‘Brahms 3: The Musical’. The close of the first movement, for instance, was celebrated with a kind of ‘We Will Rock You’ bashing out of the main theme, supported exaggeratedly by electric guitar and drum kit. And while Brahms does bring back the opening harmonies at the end of the symphony, he doesn’t quite bring back the main theme like the STEGREIF arrangement did (albeit much more calmly than at the end of the first movement). Maybe less would have been more…

But hey, in many ways a symphony is just a collection of bangin’ tunes. So why not get to the point and present it like that? The STEGREIF performers played their version with such conviction, as if this is something they’d always been itching to do with this old piece of music. You can argue about whether Brahms had been appropriately liberated from tradition, but a dancing, clapping crowd of all ages testifies to one thing: it certainly felt freeing to experience STEGREIF’s performance. And maybe that’s the more important result.

 

IMG_20180728_200930

 

Audience Research at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music 2018

This post originally appeared on the Ulysses Network website

My most recent audience research trip took me to Darmstadt for this year’s Summer Course for New Music, one of the best-known and most established new music institutions in Europe. The Darmstadt Summer Course has been running since 1946 and its history and significance for the development of music have frequently been the subject of writings on 20th century music. It is also an institution that reflects a lot on its extensive history. In fact, just a couple of hours before the audience survey was handed out this concert by the Arditti Quartet, a discussion (following Georgina Born’s paper on ‘audiencing’) started up around the nature of the ‘Darmstadt audience’, how they could be encouraged to participate more actively and whether people from the local area do attend the Course’s events. Obviously, some of these questions overlap with mine. In a ‘Summer Course’ setting, where most events are by and intended for the course participants (i.e. composers, musicians and teachers), who is really the audience? Are these practitioners able to fully put themselves in the position of audience members at the course’s public concerts? Do interested members of local population attend and to what degree are they also musical experts?

Out of the 13 surveys I’m conducting across Europe, Darmstadt is most probably the setting with the largest number of new music professionals attending concerts. Since the questionnaire has been designed to capture the responses of audience members with any level of musical background and interest in contemporary classical music, I was concerned that the Darmstadt participants may not feel like the questions apply to them or would find it strange to be asked about their interest in new music in a context that assumes an expert interest in exactly this. But despite these concerns, the questionnaire was met with a strong response, 251 returned forms from the 350-400 audience members in attendance. The concert was the third in a trilogy of performances by the Arditti Quartet at this year’s Summer Course and the programme featured a solo cello piece by Brian Ferneyhough alongside three recent quartet works by Younghi Pagh-Paan, James Clarke and Ashley Fure. Fure’s ‘Anima’ for augmented string quartet  (augmented through mobile transducers that the players explore the surface of their instruments with) seemed to be the most divisive piece on the programme. Some enthusiastically named it as their highlight (‘the electronic mix was great, very focused and intense!’) whereas others found the high frequencies and the intensity of the feedback unpleasant and difficult to listen to.

A number of respondents felt there needed to be more contrast in musical style in the programme (‘everything sounded kind of the same’) and that it should have overall been shorter. Others asked for more context to be provided, with introductory talks from composers and more detailed programme notes being two suggestions for ways of offering this. An interesting comment on the concert format was left by one audience member, who found that the ‘traditional concert hall setup & presentation style feels extremely antiquated for this music – which brings the music down.’ Picking up on the audience participation debate that took place earlier that day, it seems like audiences do often want more opportunities to feel engaged and involved through new formats; in fact, one answer called for there to be surveys after every Darmstadt concert!

As for those who were among the minority of locals attending, I’ll have to get further into the data to see in how far their experience contrasts those of the course participants. Unfortunately, I was not able to offer German questionnaires as it would have been difficult distribute them easily to those who needed them (this was also an issue at Flagey), but at first glance, it does seem that a small number did answer the survey despite this. Some Summer Course participants referenced feeling new at Darmstadt (‘I am new to “New Music” and really enjoyed my time here’), which points to the existence of many possible ‘Darmstadt audiences’, with varying backgrounds and experiences.

Arditti_Fure_2018-07-22(c)IMD_Kristof_LempArditti_Fure_2018-07-22(c)IMD_Kristof_Lemp2

Photos: Kristof Lemp

‘Songs of Wars I Have Seen’ at Time of Music 2018

I attended a couple of concerts at this year’s Time of Music yesterday evening, Finland’s only annual festival dedicated to contemporary classical music. It takes place in Viitasaari, a small town in Central Finland, which provides a scenic backdrop of lakes and pine forests to the week of concerts, workshops and talks.

The main event of the festival’s Saturday night programme was a production of Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen (2007), an hour-long ‘staged concert’ for two ensembles and electronics. This format is the result of Goebbels’ experience as both a composer and theatre director and features lighting and narration around the music. The fifth of Goebbels’ work in this style, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is based around extracts from Gertrude Stein’s WW2 memoir Wars I Have Seen, which are recited by the female members of the ensembles. That one of the two ensembles is typically a Baroque specialist group, in order to meet the demands of the instrumentation, adds yet another layer to the work; in this performance, members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra took on these roles.

So, music, lighting, narration, modern and period instruments and electronics… it may appear cluttered. But the result is remarkably unfussy and direct. Partly this is due to the dry, observational style of Stein’s texts, which cut through the instrumental textures and deliver sharp points of focus, whether commenting on Shakespeare, the taste of honey during rationing or on national differences in wartime radio addresses. Another recurring source of focus comes from the snippets of Baroque material, borrowed from Matthew Locke’s 1667 incidental music for ‘The Tempest’. These surfaced every now and then, providing a musical echo of Stein’s reflections on the theme of war in Shakespeare’s plays. Around these 17th-century interjections, the musical material remained unselfconsciously omnivorous, with shades of jazz and military marches alongside angular, uneasy passages, such as the underscore to Stein’s comparisons between the injustices of the World Wars and Medieval lawlessness.

The interplay between text, sound and the staging was simple and well-conceived. At times, the disconnect between everyday life and the horror of war conveyed in Stein’s texts seemed to be underlined by the gendered separation of the musicians. The male players were arranged at the back (and were more often in darkness) with the female musicians/narrators seated front and centre, cosily surrounded by lamps in a kind of 1940s living room ‘set’. This physical separation hinted at the distance between women’s and men’s lived experiences of the war. The ‘set’ also served to transform the sports hall venue (the Viitasaari Arena) into a real performance space, drawing the audience into the work right until the glow of the lamps finally dimmed down.

Click here for an Audience Research version of this post on the Ulysses Network website!

SongsofWars2

Photo: Santtu Paananen

Turning audiences into performers: the Divertimento Ensemble at the Fabbrica del Vapore, Milan

Milan’s Ensemble Divertimento ranks as one of Italy’s premier new music institutions, having developed close connections to the city’s composers and beyond over an impressive 41-year lifespan. Yesterday evening, I attended a concert that displayed a distinctive feature of the ensemble’s work, its commitment to bringing new music to a broader audience.

The central work on yesterday’s programme was Gabriele Manca’s Lettres comme á l’envers (‘Like letters in reverse’), a new composition for soprano, ensemble and amateur choir based on a text by Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra. Founded last year, the choir in question were the ‘New Voices of the Divertimento Ensemble’, roughly 40 singers with little to no musical training. While some of them had previously attended Divertimento concerts, many were new to the field of contemporary music, hearing about the project through local media and word of mouth. I chatted to a few members at their Monday night rehearsal, all of whom had found performing a new work challenging but very rewarding. The group seemed to have built a close-knit community around this music, an inspiring result.

The work itself took up the theme of migration, not with a positive message of inclusivity, but rather through a poignant exploration of disorientation, displacement and host nation hostility. Manca dedicated the work ‘to all those women, men and children who after endless wanderings reach only our distance’. This feeling of conflict and confusion was subtly translated into sound. Manca’s opening passage carried a strong sense of agitation via nervous key-clacking in the woodwind and a rumbling chant performed by the male voices. A persistent whining accordion note added further tension (and appropriately, some noticeable confusion for the audience over where it was coming from). In a later section, shrieks and squeals from the soprano (Beatrice Binda, who also performed a solo work by Manca earlier in the evening) gathered into a eruption of angry responses from the full choir: a brutal, effective climax.

The remaining ensemble works on the programme complemented the darkly toned soundworld of ’Lettres comme…’. Claudio Ambrosini’s Grande fratello (‘Big Brother’) for cello and bass clarinet featured veering microtonal slides and a wailing, sombre clarinet sound. Vittorio Montalti’s Sotteraneo (‘Subterranean’) had a striking forward motion, alternating brighter passages with growling double bass and squelching electronics. Rebecca Saunders’ Fury II fitted seamlessly into this line-up of brooding works, drawing together a range of pulsating and percussive dark timbres.

Click here for the Audience Research version of this post!

Photos: Giovanni Daniotti