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tag: classical

How Erik Satie Foresaw Brendan Landis’ Excavation of His “Gymnopedie No. 1”

And how Sean Dack intervened in between, back in 2011

There are influences, and there are precedents. Influences are generally things that one senses as having helped shaped one’s world view. Precedents are often recognized afterward as having foretold, to some small or great degree, efforts that came later. Precedents can serve as akin to influences when their scope is such that even if the influenced isn’t ever directly aware of the original work, that work resulted in a cascade such that a chain of influence is essentially undoubtable, even if it’s only evident in retrospect. There’s plenty of illustrated work, for example, that resembles Rube Goldberg’s complex drawings of unnecessarily complicated inventions designed to achieve a specific end result, yet was done by artists who might only have ever witnessed Goldberg’s specific kind of genius thirdhand. In a way, discussion of influence and precedent is its own Rube Goldberg apparatus: a complicated means by which to say, simply, “This has happened before.”

Satie is often credited as a strong precursor — a precedent — of ambient music due to his exploration of stasis and repetition. This is to say that Brendan Landis’ “Every Recording of Gymnopedie 1,” which has experienced a flurry of attention this past week, can trace its existence back to early Satie works. This parallel distinguishes Landis’ effort — which overlays reportedly 60 different takes of “Gymnopedie 1” end to end — from many other supercut-style pop-culture reworkings. In other words, we might learn something about the form of every Star Wars film played simultaneously or every episode of the TV series MAS*H played simultaneously, but it’s a stretch to suggest that the mashup treatment is intrinsic to those two subjects’ original aesthetic.

Landis, to the contrary, can point to the ambient legacy of “Gymnopedie 1,” to the egoless quality of Satie’s famous “Musique d’Ameublement” (music intended to merge with, to disappear into, the expected sounds of a dinner party), and especially to the composer’s “Vexations,” in which a single musical phrase is repeated 840 times. Landis’ technologically enabled reworking of Satie might take “Vexations” as its strongest precedent: Satie played one thing many times to hear the differences; Landis played many versions of one thing at the same time to hear the differences.

Here, for reference, is a complete performance, almost 10 hours in length, of Nicolas Horvath performing “Vexations” live at the Conservatoire de Musique in Lagny-sur-Marne, France, on June 26, 2011:

Here is Landis’ versions(s) of “Gymnopedie 1.” It had about 2,000 or so listens when I first wrote about it, on January 15. As of this writing it has just shy of 30,000 listens:

Just a day before the Horvath “Vexations” performance, a show closed by coincidence halfway across the world at the Fitzroy Gallery in Manhattan. The exhibit, 21st Century Dub Dub, which was up for almost two months, showcased the artist Sean Dack, who is based in New York. There was only one piece in 21st Century Dub Dub, but as Walt Whitman wrote, it contained multitudes. Titled “Version/Variation,” the piece took 26 different takes on the same Satie piece as Landis, “Gymnopedie 1,” and played them simultaneously. One key difference is that Dack opted to play them not at their original speed but slowed down significantly, so each was just over 70 minutes long — “the total length of a commercially available compact disc,” as described in a program note at the gallery’s website, fitzroygallery.com. In a nod to Janet Cardiff’s monumental “The Forty-Part Motet,” in which each vocal line is played on its own freestanding speaker, the Dack Satie piece has each individual recording playing on a different speaker, thus allowing the listener to walk around and amid the piece, to experience it as frozen music, an architecture of sound.

Here, for reference, is footage of a Cardiff/Motet installation:

The Dack video (shown up at the top of this post) has been online for over a year, since September 10, 2014, but as of today still has fewer than 50 views. It deserves to be more widely heard, though it goes without saying that its strongest effect would be in person, in full multi-speaker surround sound. I want to thank a commenter to my previous piece on Landis (who records and performs under the name Hey Exit), “Every* Recording of Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopedie 1’ Played at the Same Time,” for having brought the earlier Dack Satie piece to my attention.

The video of “Version/Variation” originally posted at youtube.com. More from Sean Dack at seandack.net. This May 17 will mark the 150th anniversary of Erik Satie’s birth. Perhaps an exhibit this year will show both the Landis and the Dack, and other work inspired by Satie.

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Every* Recording of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie 1″ Played at the Same Time

A sound experiment in opulent minimalism by Brendan Landis

Minimalism can be luxurious, an opulence of absence. Brendan Landis, who records as Hey Exit, has found an opulent minimalism by taking some of the most spare music ever, Erik Satie’s classic “Gymnopedie 1,” and maximizing its presence through simultaneous repetition. What he’s done is taken multiple renditions of the piece (“Every Recording of Gymnopedie 1” is the reworking’s title) and layered them atop one another. There’s a joke about being hit by either a ton of bricks or a ton of pillows, and how either way it’s a ton — at some point weight trumps texture. Landis’ experiment reveals that amassed pillowy music doesn’t gather in density so much as exaggerate its inherent properties: a cloud becomes the sky.

To adjust the varying lengths, Landis took the longest piece as the norm and stretched the others to match it. Stretching is, along with supercuts (like the one of every time Metallica’s singer says “yeah” in a song) or the layering of related videos (like Michael Bell-Smith’s version of the first 12 chapters of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet), a popular means by which pop-culture audiences examine the objects of their affection. In supercuts, you can marvel at the mastery or mundanity of repeated elements. In the layered videos, you can note structures, tempos, and other commonalities. A major stretched-audio milestone was an 800% extension of a Justin Bieber track. This gained a lot of notoriety for turning the rakish pop figure into an angel — the thing being, you can stretch just about anything and eventually it becomes angelic. Arguably the key benefit of exaggerated stretching is getting inside the tonality of a piece, witnessing it as architecture: frozen music amid which you can wander.

Landis here uses stretching in a much more functional manner. By matching the start and end of the source recordings, he draws attention to variations in tempo and phrasing. By combining so many Saties in one place he honors the work by bringing an orchestral gravitas to a solo piano piece. At the same time, he also manages to put it off at a distance. “Every Recording of Gymnopedie 1” sounds like nothing so much as one person playing it at the far end of a very long hallway lined with glass — an opulent hall perhaps — the echoes triggering echoes triggering echoes.

The track was originally posted at soundcloud.com/hey-exit, found thanks to Gretchen Jude. More from Hey Exit, aka Brendan Landis of Brooklyn (I met him when he was living in San Francisco and performing with Erik Schoster) at heyexit.com.

*Let’s take Landis’ word for it.

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Listening for Context Between Raw and Cooked Orchestral Performances

In a piece by composer Emilie Cecilia LeBel

It’s unfortunate that many classical composers who post work to SoundCloud and other general-access streaming services don’t annotate their work particularly well, if at all. Often it seems that the material posted was honed in academia and posted for peer distribution, but public music ends up with a public listen, and why not take the time to provide a bit of a program note: what you were aiming for, what you were exploring, what the instrumentation is, what to listen for? Then again, most commercial streaming services (Apple, Google Play, Spotify — even the dearly departed Rdio, which was the most album/artist-centric of its cohort, as opposed to a playlist orientation) provide little if anything in the manner of what was once called liner notes, so individual composers can’t be particularly blamed. Apparently the New Criticism, as it was once called, is new again – that is, the perception of the work as a standalone object, devoid of authorial or cultural context. Or, as C. Reider joked on Twitter, it’s not particularly “acousmatic” to expect a composer to say anything about a work. “Acousmatic” is sound one hears without being aware or certain of the originating source, which is a little different from listening to an orchestra and wondering what was on the minds of the composer and players.

None of which Emilie Cecilia LeBel should be critiqued for individually. She’s generously posted a selection of her compositions to SoundCloud for several years now. Originally from Canada and now an assistant professor of composition and music technology at the University of Montana, she in the past month posted not one but two very different takes on the same work. So, while we don’t know much in the way of background of the evocative, sprawling, and yet exquisitely ephemeral “Monograph of Bird’s Eye Views,” we can listen back and forth between the two takes. Better yet, they were performed by the same ensemble, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, in two very different settings: live in concert in Calgary, and in a studio in Montreal.

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The work opens with a dream-like salvo, star-fall shimmers that resolve with a held note. This transfers to a nearly drone-like stature that much of the remaining eight minutes or so strain, successfully, to preserve. “Monograph of Bird’s Eye Views” is a very slow work, yet never tedious. And the strain isn’t a sign of difficulty, but of ambition. LeBel creates a broad quiet space in which individual instruments are paired across sections, and small bands within the orchestra provide soft clusters of chordal formations. The main difference between the two renditions is, of course, room tone. In the live version, the underlying subtlety has to persevere against a tinny, humming spatial reality, but there are also plenty of variations to note, something held back here, something slightly apart from the herd there.

This is the studio recording:

This is the live recording:

My opening comments about the frequent lack of context for music posted on services like SoundCloud, and Bandcamp for that matter, aren’t unique to classical music. And it’s an unfounded condescension to suggest there’s any more inherent depth in an orchestral work than in, say, a remix. However, classical music in particular suffers from far less popular-audience comprehension than do many other forms of music, so listeners bring less knowledge to it. Also, an orchestral score, such as this piece, likely results from an extended gestation period — which is to say, its development has a built-in narrative. Clearly this has been on my mind for awhile, and “Monograph of Bird’s Eye Views” provided both a good example and the kind of listening space conducive to formulating my thoughts. All of which said, LeBel’s composition is absolutely beautiful.

Tracks originally posted at soundcloud.com/emiliececilia. More LeBel from at emilielebel.ca. More on the National Youth Orchestra of Canada at nyoc.org.

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Music for Fracking

A work by Ohio-based composer Brian Harnetty

Among recent recipients of Creative Capital awards, announced today, is composer and sound artist Brian Harnetty, whose Shawnee, Ohio, heard here in an excerpt, uses field recording and composed segments to explore the influence of fracking on communities and the environment. This piece is brief, under a minute, but the mix of elegant, slow-paced musical elements and snippets of spoken reminiscences is striking.

A brief note explains his project:

Performed with sampled archives, field recordings and live musicians, Shawnee, Ohio critically engages ecology, energy, place and personal history to ask: What are the sounds of mining? Of fracking? Of a town fighting to survive after a century of economic decline and environmental degradation? These sounds are recorded as compositional material reflecting layers of history and memory in Appalachian Ohio. Shawnee’s history includes coal, gas and clay extraction, and the formation of early labor unions. The town’s downturn and partial restoration act as an ethos of the struggles and hopes of the larger region, now immersed in a controversial fracking boom. Shawnee, Ohio considers these histories, evokes place through sound, and listens to the present alongside traces of the past.

Video originally posted at creative-capital.org. More from Harnetty, who lives in Ohio, at brianharnetty.com.

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Northern Darks

Music and sound Norwegians make come winter, including Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere)

Island Life: Map of Senja, Norway, home to the musician Biosphere

Island Life: Map of Senja, Norway, home to the musician Biosphere

Starting off in “the cultural hub of the Arctic Circle,” British broadcaster Petroc Trelawny reports on the sounds of deep, dark, sun-less winter — music of Tromsø, Norway, including its local ballet, orchestra, and a church choir known as Arctic Voices; the traditional vocal style of yoik (which a Norwegian student of mine did a report on last semester); and, most pertinent for this site’s coverage, the efforts of Geir Jenssen, aka Biosphere, to use the sound of frozen lakes and other natural regional resources as source recordings for his music. Jenssen’s segment, recorded on the island of Senja where he lives, begins at 26:30 and runs for a tad over 12 minutes. Jenssen discusses how at the right time of year, the ice on a frozen lake can serve like the skin of a drum — the effect is also known as “singing ice.” It sounds at times, as well, like the reverberation of long thick metal cable. He is also recorded playing a (reportedly bright orange) vuvuzela to test the deep echo of one of the spaces he and Trelawny explore. Now I’d really like to hear what Jenssen could make of yoik and that choir.

There’s no embeddable player, but the broadcast is available for download and streaming at bbc.co.uk. More from Jennsen at biosphere. (Several people drew my attention to this BBC broadcast. Many thanks.)

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