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Review: Jürg Frey/Radu Malfatti, “II” (Erstwhile)

One way to approach Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti’s II is to concentrate on how they shape their music. The numerous small silences that dot the first disc are conspicuous. So is the album’s low volume and the sharp, maybe surprising, beauty with which Frey plays his clarinet and Malfatti his trombone, but form takes precedence over these. Form and the way sounds are formed. Much of what happens on these two discs is the product of the tension between silence and sound, the difference between expression and phenomenon, and the manner in which sounds beget forms all on their own. By subduing material and structure, Frey and Malfatti knock down the walls that sometimes bind music to a fixed path. What lies outside is a sparse and weightless field where music seemingly organizes—and destroys—itself.

II, as the title implies, splits the work of Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti over two discs. The first, a Malfatti-credited piece titled “shoguu,” cuts a strong impression. Long, vibrating tones, stark harmonics, and frequent silences comprise nearly all of its material, though certain tones are so smooth and consistent they sometimes sound computer-generated. The likelihood that computers were used is probably pretty low, but the semblance of that analog hum adds a mysterious and blurry component to the performance.

The noise of a depressed valve, a few unexpected squeaks, and the odd bodily clank of brass or hardwood turns up as well, but for the better part of the five sections of  “shoguu,” a subdued, balloon-like spaciousness holds court. The combination of clarinet and trombone produces delicate music, as restrained as it is gorgeous. Without a discernible structure—and without the usual musical tools, like rhythms, chord changes, and other sonic continuities—the duo’s wavering tones come off as autonomous little events, cobweb-like and fleeting. Some of the melodies are so tenuous they seem almost illusory, like particles of dust that might disappear should the sunlight hit them a different way. Malfatti even hollows his trombone’s lower register out, making it feather-like and buoyant, it’s swelling whole tones like vents of warm rising air.

(Read More… at – includes samples)

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Song for the Night: In Memoriam Morton Feldman

Form 4 (1993)
for variable ensemble (at least 16 players)
woodwinds, brass, strings, pitched percussion
in memoriam Morton Feldman

James Tenney resource guide at Sound Expanse

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Review: Anne Guthrie, “Codiaeum Variegatum” (Students of Decay)

Since about the time musical theory was first written down, musicians, scientists, mystics and philosophers have sought to discover and explain the presence of harmony in the natural world. One of the most famous products of that endeavor is Pythagoras’ music of the spheres, a theory that ascribes a constant tone to each of the planets based on the period of their transit through the sky.

For Pythagoras, the harmony wasn’t merely mathematical. It had an audible component even if humans couldn’t hear it. Johannes Kepler devised a more sophisticated picture of that heavenly music more than 2,000 years later when he calculated the differences in planetary motion at perihelion and aphelion. The ratios yielded by their combination produced musical intervals that he notated in hisHarmonices Mundi. Jupiter and Mars didn’t just hum as they plowed through the ether; they sang in major thirds and octaves.

Four hundred years later, we’re less interested in the metaphysical connotations of astronomical symphonies, but we’re still fascinated by the sounds of the universe. Interest in the sub-surface growl of geological events and in the sound of Saturn’s magnetic activity betrays a continued love affair with the idea that harmony persists in the cosmos despite all the terrestrial evidence to the contrary. Anne Guthrie knows that it persists, albeit in a form different than anything Kepler might have dreamed, and she gives us a strong example in Codiaeum Variegatum.

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The Beautiful Sound of… Bird Droppings

detail from a page og Cornelius Cardew's "Treatise"

detail from a page of Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise”

Most people are familiar with the use of chance operations in music. John Cage used the I Ching to compose his Music of Changes. Xenakis used probabilities and statistical mechanics for Pithoprakta. Stockhausen, Cardew, Feldman, Wolff, and numerous others all wrote indeterminate music of some form or another. But I doubt any of them imagined using bird shit to write music. Continue reading