These two releases on Mode showcase the differing approaches of what used to be contrasted in facile manner as the American experimental and European avant-garde schools of composition. The composers in question are Alvin Lucier and Aldo Clementi respectively, each a composer of unique outlook; and both CDs offer an interesting display of iconoclastic and inquisitive compositional talent.
The Lucier release features some recent works whose style will be familiar to anyone already acquainted with his music. The opening work is comprised of an extended bagpipe drone on a single pitch; or almost a single pitch, two sound signals from the bagpipes playing an almost imperceptible difference around that pitch. Musical interest arises in their slight discrepancy and in the rich overtone field generated by the single extended drone. Good if you're into that kind of thing; otherwise it will likely just sound like a long extended buzzing noise put to tape, according to your taste and ear (obviously you wouldn't be buying this release if you weren't interested in that kind of thing in the first place). This work is in line with Lucier's Music on a Long Thin Wire in exploring the world of micro-activity occurring within a single tone, constantly held in such a way as to present an inner iridescence of harmonic activity.
The second work, Fan, is a strange tumbling composition for four kotos (a Japanese stringed instrument), more rhythmically based than the first, and which gives an impression of teaming raindrops reverberating on tin roofs. The process and pattern of notes between the instruments alters over the duration of the work in the shifting of an ostinato-like figure by an occasional semitone, which creates different audible relationships between the figures being played, all the while tracing out a skeletal outline against the work's canvas. The music is charming in an unconventional way, deceptively simple with an imaginative approach.
947 for solo flute and tape pits the performer Jacqueline Martelle against four different electronically generated tones, each of which is sounded constantly for its duration before switching to another tone. The flute creates pulsing in the discrepancy of its signal with the pure sine tone. After this work there is a long piece for solo triangle, consisting of a constant striking of that instrument. The clang of this you will find either extremely irritating or absorbing, or somewhere between the two. There are certain places you wouldn't get away with it.
The disc closes with its best piece, Ever Present, scored for flute, saxophone and piano with electronic tones. The gradually sweeping tones move in an arc describing two octaves and their return, with the instruments joining in to colour the movement. The tones intermingle and appear through each other, giving way as they pass by and release other colours. There is a lull to the work that makes its effect meditative and unobtrusive. This follows the landscaped garden of a friend of the composer's which provided the work's inspiration, a feeling of space taking precedence over local objects therein.
The Aldo Clementi release is focussed on that Italian composer's works featuring guitar, both in solo and small ensemble setting. The Elision Ensemble performs the works with Geoffrey Morris on guitar, the performers proving themselves an impressive body of musicians (although the recording quality is a bit less than crystalline).
Again the works here will be stylistically familiar to those with cognisance of the composer's music. Clementi's mature approach to composition sees a heavy deployment of canon and other mechanical recursive techniques in order to bring about a paradoxical animation in frieze. The resultant process undercuts any claims music might have to lofty freedom from its own bounds. Lines of contrapuntal sound swirl in on themselves without going anywhere, giving a feeling of dread to the proceedings. As with the Lucier this approach elicits mixed responses, and unaccustomed listeners can be quite hostile to it, subverting as it does a lot of the pretensions of contemporary composition and composers.
Serenata is typical. Over its duration the piece describes a drama of music on the listener, beginning uncertainly and ending with total satisfaction in the fading off of its sound in gradual decrescendo. It appears like a visual inscription (Keats's Urn) in its static inability to move beyond itself, presenting a longish lyrical figure that unfolds between guitar and ensemble and then repeats itself over and over, slowly and unwillingly, until exhausted – something like a clockwork fresco (as ridiculous and unwelcome an idea as is warranted for its analogy).
After this opening, there are five other works before the last one, none of which are as interesting as the initial one, but which together give a rounded view of Clementi's work. The Plaint closes the disc and is its other standout track. It achieves something approaching an epic grandeur on its own little level, a level caught in a musical grimace the listener is irrevocably detached from but has to face. Written for the Elision ensemble, it features a vocalist occasionally repeating a phrase from The Fairy Queen by Purcell to the strains of a creaky and slow-moving Baroque-esque ensemble. It is tense with restrained violence and is in fact almost unendurable, if slightly addictive.
This music is always discursive but in a desperate and trapped way, condemned to following a preordained journey along already-worn paths. In the act charged to it of looking for something, it forgets what it was it was it was charged to look for (there is humour here as well).
Both these discs are of a rarefied taste, but there is much to recommend in each if you're willing to stretch your musical imagination and challenge your perspective. Buy one for your grandparents for Christmas during these recession-blighted times, then play it during dinner, or at five in the morning when no one's around.
By Liam Cagney