If you are in search of neoclassical that manages to be as lively as it is steeped in a very modern sense of ambience and ellipsis, Italian composer and virtuoso pianist Lorenzo Masotto is surely going to be your go-to guy. On Masotto’s debut solo recording Seta (Silk), published by Rome’s Alfa Music in February, the already highly accomplished graduate of both the Conservatorio Di Musica F. E. Dall’Abaco Verona and the Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt in Weimar has shot for an engaging and eclectic take on modern art music which incorporates electronic textures in addition to accompaniment by Fabrizio Bosso on trumpet, Mauro Ottolini on trombone, Laura Masotto, Eleuteria Arena, and Marco Mazzi on strings; Stefania Avolio as second pianist, and Bruce Turri on drums. Seta is humble and dignified, and subsequently exactly the kind of thing one looks for with fusion-type works in this vein!
The sensibility here is bustling with activity and dynamic, yet also very sensitive and textural. Masotto’s languid, floating melodies have an impressionistic affect to them, but then, there is also something here almost akin to George Gershwin in wryly nostalgic reveries like “Improvviso” and “Olio su tela”. The lush, melodic, vaguely cinematic, yet never too sentimental or digressive, textures of these pieces often remind me of Ryuichi Sakamoto, a favorite of mine, and his idiosynchratic kind of emotive impressionism, and like Sakamoto, Masotto is open to finding a place for electronics in his pieces. On that note, I was particularly drawn into the tense, lovely “Gea” for the sidereal pulse undercutting Masotto’s hurried piano melody– well-constructed stuff. Totally criminally underrated…I hope to hear more great things from Lorenzo in years to come.
Portuguese sound artist Rafael Toral is self-taught, something that, for three decades, has always reflected in the fearlessly exploratory spirit of his consistently striking output, once focused on richly-textured guitar-based drones, now on a hands-on praxis to even more rough and abstract electronic experimentation. It is fitting that Toral, who labored without much encouragement in the years leading up to his full-length debut Sound Mind Sound Body, would deliberately steer down a seemingly completely fresh path, considering how his work comes from a love of trying to forge new tools for new ways of speaking. The Space Program series, which Toral began to work on around 2003, is sometimes a solo effort, other times a collaborative one with any number of friends from the always-expanding Space Collective; what unites the project as a whole is its underlying goal to form a stylistic analogue to free jazz by way of rudimentary electronic tools (generally an oscillator and a modified amp meant for generating feedback controlled by light-sensors). Space Collective 2 is a recording of a performance by Toral and drummer Afonso Simões made at the 2012 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, finally seeing a physical release through a limited run of tapes off the always excellent Notice Recordings.
This may very well be the perfect entry point for one new to the Space Program. I actually saw Toral give a solo performance in October at The Projection Museum, an art studio and living space right at the edge of Northeast Portland on Burnside, at the invitation of a friend, and while one does get a very visceral sense of what Toral means when he says he wants to make a more humanized, meaningfully expressive version of electronic music by emphasizing a sense of precise control over his tools in his solo performances, something about this 2012 collective effort stylistically falls into a place, if for the fullness of its sound. As Side A gets underway, Simões gives Toral room to breathe, offsetting Toral’s exploratory stabs into the silence with distant thunder. With an electronic shriek, the gates of sane madness open and that silence explodes into a whirlwind of violence, with Simões’s frantic strokes keeping time with Toral’s Braxton-like sonic attack. It’s a startling synthesis to behold (the actual sight of Toral yanking piercing cries out of these unassuming-looking handheld boxes is mesmerizing, I might add), but at the same time it’s one that makes one wonder why it was not stumbled upon before Toral took the leap. This is experimental electronic music operating at a higher level of deliberation and thoughtfulness than nearly everything else in sound synthesis and free improvisation– an essential document and a real pleasure to see getting a proper release.
Ian William Craig is a composer, sound artist, and visual artist from Vancouver, British Columbia whose methodology marries the skeleton of classical Western art music to the decayed aesthetic of reel-to-reel hauntology. Last year Craig, who has been active since 2012, topped many critics’ lists with A Turn of Breath, off Sean McCann’s Recital Program. On that release, Craig, whose fledgling work began with sitting at piano and recording improvisations that were manipulated on tape, turned to his background as a trained opera singer for the praxis to create striking and elegiac effects, spooling his voice into faded and torn tape loops. It was hard not to take notice. His first follow up to A Turn of Breath, the excellent Theia and the Archive, was gorgeously emotive and piano-based, but on his second outing for Recital, Cradle for the Wanting, Craig has decided to trip deeper into what is perhaps the zone of the deconstructed art song he explored last year. The result is quite intriguing indeed.
Like contemporaries Tomonari Nozaki and Cradle’s curator McCann, Craig doesn’t craft songs so much as lo-fi neoclassical planetariums, a sense of saturation and resonance that can be almost overwhelming. However, compared with the dramatic transitions of A Turn of Breath, Cradle for the Wanting is more subdued, perhaps meditative. Perhaps unintentionally, Craig’s work here evokes the abstract, oddly dignified character of work by composers like Pauline Oliveros and David Hykes– deep listening art music where one is meant to ruminate over the trails left by sounds. So much is embedded in the lilting hums and whispers of a piece like “Shipbreaking”– phrases are scattered with a sense of purpose, with a sense of memories slowly resurfacing, and perhaps disintegrating as they unravel. The art song is an idiom so alien to modern music that one cannot help but reflect that this distorted re-arrangement feels emotionally faithful to it while being presented in a way that feels “right”. It’s lovely, absorbing stuff that finds something like eternity through unconventional means.
As Mind Over MIDI, veteran producer Helge Tømmervåg has since the late 90’s pioneered a style that takes the features of dub-influenced techno into increasingly abstract zones. Experimental electronica’s textural preoccupation with the ever-so-slight permeation of “noise” in the form of reverberating clicks and pops, arguably begun with Stefan Betke’s Pole, comes to a head with the spacious pads of dub techno in this guy’s work. While Brock Van Wey’s bvdub releases evoke cinematic melancholy in epic-length sonic blizzards, Mind Over MIDI is all minimal, down-tempo mystery, engulfed by shadows. Moreover, over the years, Tømmervåg’s output has gotten progressively more exploratory and experimental.
Deep Map, Tømmervåg’s third outing with diametic., due December 7th, will be of particular interest not just to fans of Mind Over MIDI but to those into purely ambient sounds, as this one is all beatless ambient: a spacious soundscape of chilly synths slowly shifting in tandem with field recordings, covered with a snowy layer of dubby hisses and crackles. Emotive sweeps and swells give a sense of the cosmic to scenes from a Norwegian forest in winter. I was let down when, in the final moments of “Sound and Silence” (in which Tømmervåg makes the interesting choice to process what sounds like handling noise from a field recorder to add another element to the ambience), I realized the trip had come to an end– this one has a way of creating the feeling of a suspension in time. An exceptionally intriguing offering from a legendary producer.
Thet Liturgiske Owäsendet are a mysterious duo from Sweden who make lovely dark ambient sounds with modular synth and processed electric guitar along with other sonic oddities. On their recorded debut Järtecken, off the always reliable Shimmering Moods Records, they work improvisations into hypnotic, meticulously layered atmospheres that evoke the crashing of cold seas in an endless polar night. Not long into the gentle, ebbing chant of a track like “Under jord är du kommen”, one can see what they’re up to– putting a mantric tribal tone in line with that introspective Scandinavian spirit for something far closer to Klaus Schulze than Geir Jenssen. Brilliantly constructed, enveloping beauty.
Since 2007, Denmark’s Paw Grabowski has used his project øjeRum to explore inner space (the name “øjeRum” is a portmanteau of the Danish words for “eye” and “room”) through an eclectic mixture of delicate acoustic finger-picking and ghostly electric swells. He seems equally comfortable working in the vein of introspective ballads (check Fraværsminder) as he does with ethereal electro-acoustic ambient sounds like last year’s He Remembers There Were Gardens, an alternate soundtrack to one of Chris Marker’s films– what unites the separate threads of all his diverse work is that its aesthetic is all drawn from one self-contained world of monochrome mental imagery. Stilhedens Strømmen I Fuglenes Blod (“The Flow Of Silence In The Birds’ Blood”), a self-released half-hour instrumental track from September (sold-out, but soon to be made available for purchase again through Tomentosa Records), might be the best starting point one could have for the sonic world of øjeRum.
There’s a kind of a spiritual, even religious association that comes up in one’s mind when faced with decayed black and white film. One picks up on these associations especially in European and Japanese Art-House cinema, in which it’s the tissue of projected ancient tales and modern dreams. In a way it makes perfect sense that Grabowski is also a visual artist whose speciality happens to be handcut collages of gray-scale and sepia-toned imagery, because the emotional affect of his music is so strongly evocative in a dream-like way– gossamer sonic details compound to create faded scenes of shadowy forests. The slow arpeggios from the acoustic guitar endlessly repeating, muted field-recordings, rustles in the dark, distant bells…all these elements come straight out of an austere pastoral vision along the lines of a scene from Vampyr by Carl Dreyer. The beauty of decay– diffused to form a landscape. You’ll have to tune into this one if you are into field recording, drone folk, and the European side of minimal sounds, in the company of Andrew Chalk and Vikki Jackman.
Here’s one from March you hopefully did not miss: Ultrasonic Bathing Appartus, off Italy’s Sincope Recordings, is the latest offering from highly prolific Italian electro-acoustic/industrial veteran Simon Balestrazzi, an alumni of the eclectic experimenters T.A.C. as well as a long list of collaborations with Maurizio Bianchi, Phil Niblock, and Damo Suzuki, among many others.
Within the first few seconds of the low-frequency drone of the opener, “First Immersion”, the stage has been set for just under three-quarters of an hour of suffocating isolationist soundscapes. Though Sara Daresu’s tabletop guitar and Balestrazzi’s warbling voice (among other tools) add some scurrying, frantic textures to brief interludes like “Osmosis”, this sonic landscape is centered on the slow embrace of ominous lower-register sounds. Ultrasonic Bathing Apparatus could be the soundtrack to the final moments before an apocalypse, like the silence in the shadow of a tidal wave looming in the distance. Creepy musique-concrète of an epic scope, and certainly among the essential deep-listening of the year.