You just can’t hear everything. Whatever your taste happens to be, there are thousands of records in the world right now that you would absolutely love, if you ever heard about them or could make time to listen. This is why when a professional music writer (one who has never responded to a single one of my pitches, for the record) claims that Spotify “has all the music I’ve ever wanted,” I laugh like someone croaking out their last parched breath before expiring under the desert sun. There is already too much music in the world for one lifetime, and there will be more by the time I finish writing this sentence. And the portion of it that’s on streaming services is, well… I bet they have this month’s big singles and all the classic rock hits of yesteryear, but if you want to listen to Fushitsusha or Borbetomagus or Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza or Sol Hoopii or the Electric Ladyland or Macro Dub Infection compilations, you’re out of luck. If a streaming service has all the music you’ve ever wanted, that’s a you problem.
Lately, I absorb music in bursts. I might buy 5 early-2000s albums by Dub Syndicate, or a clutch of brutal death metal releases, or the collected works of Argentine instrumental stoner doom act Black Sky Giant or noisy Russian drum ’n’ bass act Torn, or the entire output of the Colombian techno label Business Class. (To check out all of this music and much, much more, visit my Bandcamp collection.) The point is, I fixate on one thing for a day or two, and then I keep moving. To quote Mookie in Do the Right Thing, “I got it — I’m gone.”
A couple of years ago, I became aware of the UK classical label Another Timbre when they released a 5CD box of Morton Feldman piano pieces, performed by Philip Thomas. I bought it and loved it. Last year, they released a 4CD box of John Cage’s “number pieces,” performed by the ensemble Apartment House. I bought that, too, and found it even more beautiful than the Feldman set, in part because it was much more varied: the pieces were scored for between five and 14 musicians, playing a broad range of instruments. Some of them are just five minutes long, while others run nearly an hour. It’s highly absorbing music, sometimes incredibly quiet, sometimes filling the room with sound.
Another Timbre has just released five individual CDs, and while I was unfamiliar with most of the composers and the performers, they’d done such a good job with the “big names” (Feldman, Cage) that I figured they had earned the benefit of the doubt, even (especially) from a slack-jawed rube like myself. So since they were offering a deal via their website (five CDs for £39, worldwide shipping included), I went for it.
Johnny Chang & Keir GoGwilt’s hope lies fallow is a collection of six violin duos which take compositions by Hildegard van Bingen and Orlando de Lassus as their inspiration/starting point. On the last three tracks, Celeste Oram sings. The three purely instrumental tracks feature long, high-pitched tones that seem to waver past each other like phantom electric eels floating in the air. The music sounds like it was recorded in an empty stone church, not a studio, and the melodies, particularly on “Cantigas: Hildegard,” have a sorrowful, hymnlike quality. But this music has more in common with the work of Tony Conrad or Eyvind Kang than with “church music” or “classical” as I understand it. When Oram enters, six minutes into the 18-minute “Interlude,” she emits long, wordless tones that sometimes sound like cries of anguish, and other times like a single voice isolated from a choir; she seems to slowly materialize between the two violins, like a flower standing up straight to face the sun, but there are times when it’s difficult to distinguish between the sounds produced by bowed strings and those produced by vocal cords. Even though this is a CD (and one best heard on headphones), you may find yourself holding your breath as you listen, as if making a sound yourself would break the spell.
Katelyn Clark & Isaiah Ceccarelli’s Landmarks is also a collection of duets, played on various keyboards (continuo organ, portative organ, analog synth) and percussion. Its eight tracks range in length from 1:06 (“Gate”) to 20:08 (“Five Distances”) and were developed by reviewing recordings of the pair’s improvisations and gradually refining ideas until they achieved their final form. A lot of the music consists of patient drones which seem to gain mass as they go. “Landforms” begins with a single note held and a wavering second sound that repeats like a bird’s cry heard from miles away, across an empty landscape. The most active piece is “Improvisation on a quarter,” which begins with short rippling phrases that sound like an early Fairlight sampler sputtering to life and later manifests a series of high-pitched wavering drones. It’s the perfect lead-in to “Five Distances,” which has the punishing relentlessness (that’s a good thing) of early Philip Glass, minus the repetition. N.B.: there are a lot of low organ tones here, and the mix is crafted in such a way that if you’re listening on headphones, you will be acutely aware of both your tinnitus (if you have any) and your sinuses.
The Pankow-Park Sessions Vol. 1 collects six improvisations by pianist Ernstalbrecht Stiebler and cellist Tilman Kanitz, recorded between March and October 2021 at Kanitz’s home studio. The track titles are just the date of recording and the number of the session; for example, the earliest is “Session 17.1 (20210324)” and the most recent is “Session 33.1 (20211019),” but they’re not programmed in chronological order. The music has a suspenseful quality, and the two men seem to be restraining themselves throughout. On “Session 28.2 (20210906),” Stiebler strikes the keys with short jabs, like he’s chipping away at a stone block; only a few individual notes are allowed to sustain or ring out. Meanwhile, Kanitz’s cello is a series of long, piercing whistles and buzzsaw overtones. The balance of power is more or less even throughout, because they never seem to be following traditional improvisatory strategies. Nobody seems to be suggesting a path that both then follow, nor do they respond directly to each other in any obvious way. What we hear is a collaboratively developed musical language spoken only by these two people.
Klaus Lang’s Tehran Dust features three of his own compositions and interpretations of pieces by Johannes Ockeghem and Pierre de la Rue. The music is performed by Trio Amos (flutist Sylvie Lacroix, accordionist Krassimir Sterev, and cellist Michael Moser) with Lang on organ. Much of this music is about the gradual accrual of tones rather than the laying out of a melody; it’s like watching time-lapse photography of moss growing on a wet rock, or slow-motion footage of a tidal wave building in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles before it’ll even approach land. Once you’re a minute or so into one of the longer pieces, it’s impossible to remember how it began, or to imagine it ending. The two interpretations are much shorter than the originals, and they’re more dramatic and emphatic, too. The melodies are strongly present, but hearing them interpreted on flute, accordion, cello and organ gives them a strangely folk-music quality, like people playing hymns the memories of which have been passed down, long after the church itself died away. And even there, Lang’s compositional vision comes through. There’s an amazing moment about three minutes into Ockeghem’s “kyrie (missa prolatium)” where the cello, organ and accordion all blend into a massive airborne overtone cloud that sounds like someone’s managed to tune a forest’s worth of cicadas.
The final release in this set is Keyboard Studies, composed by Terry Riley and performed by John Tilbury on piano, organ, harpsichord, and celeste. I know Riley’s name, but have never listened to any of his music before now. No, not even In C. I know Tilbury’s work a little, having listened to a few AMM recordings (which did nothing for me), his 4CD box of Morton Feldman’s complete piano music, released in 1999, and a fantastic 2020 recording of Feldman’s For John Cage with violinist Darragh Morgan. The first piece here, “Keyboard Study #1,” is for solo piano, and it’s what I’d call “high-energy minimalism” — repetitive phrases played at high speed, shifting suddenly but subtly from one variation to another. What’s most noticeable when listening to the piece is the small human frailties, the way each repetition of the notes is slightly different in a way that makes you wonder if what you heard was wrong, or a subtle trick of the score. Or the way a phrase will start out fast and slow down slightly as it comes to an end. “Keyboard Study #2” features piano and organ, obviously overdubbed, and has the feel of German kosmische synth music, like the work of Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze., or even mid ’70s to mid ’80s AOR prog like Pink Floyd or the Alan Parsons Project. The repetitiveness is still there, but balanced by layered harmonies and intertwining resonances. It’s more than half an hour long, and seems to melt time while you’re experiencing it. The third and final track, “Dorian Reeds,” is an organ piece. It’s my least favorite of the three, but it’s still nice.
All five of these CDs are fascinating in their own ways. If you want to buy just one or two, you can get them individually on Another Timbre’s Bandcamp page, but if you want the discounted bundle price, which is the option I recommend, you’ll have to go straight to their website.