Clara Iannotta’s “Dead Wasps in the Jam-Jar (ii)” (2016) intrigues with its title’s promise of quotidian decay and, perhaps, with a bit of telegraphed moralizing about the price paid for sweetness. The suspense builds even before you hit play, thanks to its list of components: “for string orchestra, objects, and sine waves.” Now technically, virtually all music contains sine waves, since those are a major component of sound, but clearly the sine waves heard here are of the electronically generated variety. As for the objects, the brush held by the composer in the accompanying photo provides a hint at the untraditional instruments. What unfolds as “Dead Wasps in the Jam-Jar (ii)” proceeds is a study in controlled energies. In programmatic terms, the wasps seem to meet their fate as the four-minute mark arrives, a sharp swirling hitting hard, and more loudly than anything that proceeded it. Then warping torques and sudden jitters evidence struggle before the piece settles into an extended if anxious stillness. That final period, from about six minutes until the end, at eleven and a half minutes, is where concentrated listening is especially rewarded, thanks to Iannotta’s expert mix of textures, of held strings and fluttering percussion.
Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/claraiannotta. More from Iannotta, who is from Italy and is based in both Berlin, Germany, and Boston, Massachussetts, at claraiannotta.com. She is currently working on compositions for Duo 2KW and Arditti Quartet, among other ensembles.
There are many minimalisms. In electronic music, two key ones are the capital-m Minimalism, a movement/school of classical music whose founders include such composers as Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, and the lower-case minimalism, an approach employed by musicians like Taylor Deupree, Steve Roden, and others. The capital-m school has, over time, become a genre, and now counts folks like Max Richter in its ranks. The lower-case one is more of an aesthetic, one felt in ambient music, techno, film scores, and various other realms. There’s significant overlap between the two minimalisms, which are both marked by an attention to rudimentary elements and repetition, and Loscil, aka the Vancouver-based Scott Morgan, merges them formally on the forthcoming Monument Builders, due out in early November on the Kranky label. The title track was posted this week as an advance listen, and it’s a satisfying work in which orchestral instrumentation, notably a horn section around the three-minute mark and a choral part earlier on, emerge from an underlying glitchy drone.
“Stray Sods,” as heard here, is a rough take of a piece for cello and electronics by Amanda Feery, the Dublin-based composer. The first thing you hear in the piece isn’t the cello, at least not in recognizable form, but a pulsing, filmic, beading field of percussion. The effect of these tiny percussive tones is caught somewhere between a tossed snow globe and the sound design of a particularly heightened moment in a contemporary thriller. A cello enters that zone and saws long, held notes. It fills the space between the many pointillist dots. At first the cello is halting, cautious, and then it gains melodic complexity. This isn’t a whisper-to-a-scream composition, however. Pauses come at appropriate increments, and the percussion fades back and forth between modes in a manner that suggests time shifts and tectonic adjustments. There have been times when I’ve let the nearly seven minutes of “Stray Sods” play on repeat for hours, and I recommend doing so.
It’s not for no reason that the music of Theo Alexander appears in SoundCloud playlists on occasion alongside that of Nils Frahm. Like Frahm, Alexander balances a solo acoustic piano style between neo-classicalism and post-minimalism — that is, between an adherence to a longstanding instrumental literature, and an affection for a more recent one. What makes both musicians’ work trenchant today is how minimalism, once upon a time an avant-garde school, has become, through film and TV scores as well as through the popular rise of its founding composers, a romantic form.
The pulsing of Alexander’s right hand at the opening of “Disappearing Altogether” might have been a comment on mechanization and formal purity had it been composed and performed 30 years ago, but today it is the beating heart of a romantic figure. That Alexander can balance a percussive instinct with, as the piece proceeds, a penchant for melodic flourishing is very much to his credit.
Another thing Alexander shares with Frahm is a penchant for putting the mic very close to the piano. Just listen at 50 seconds in — when the piece takes its sole, momentary pause — to how the silence isn’t pure silence, but instead a careful framing, the waveforms of a handful of notes bending and bleeding and fading together, true to the track’s title.
Classical Rmxs is as it sounds. The new Bstep collection, two dozen tracks total, is a beat-heavy selection of snippets of various classical-music pieces set to downtempo, hip-hop-informed metrics. Bstep is Ben Stepner, who previously took a favorite by proto-minimalist composer Morton Feldman, “Triadic Memories,” and rendered it into something loungey and soulful, and just a little bit funky. Often on Classical Rmxs, as in “Black Dragon,” the music’s vinyl context is as much a part of the end composition as is the music itself — the sway of the surface noise is on repeat, right along with the handful of purloined notes that serve as its core. “Strange Days” pulls from a full orchestra, a pixel bit of static serving as a percussive grace note. Not all the source audio is instrumental. On “Qigong” it appears to be choral sample, rendered spectral in its misty repetition. Nor are all the additions simply beats. On “Qigong” there’s a sudden, occasional, truly funky emphasis in the form of an r&b grunt. It’s quite a pleasure to get lost in the small segments that Stepner focuses on, tiny moments from long-form works turned, themselves, into voluminous chasms where beat machines run free.
• October 13, 2016: This day marks the start of the 250th weekly Disquiet Junto project.
• November 16, 2016: I'll be sharing the mic at Adobe Books in San Francisco with my fellow 33 1/3 author Evie Nagy for an evening hosted, from 7pm to 10pm, by Marc Kate (facebook.com).
• December 1, 2016: A likely speaking engagement. Details to come.
• December 13, 2016: This day marks the 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 5, 2017: This day marks the 5th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.