Five from Pogus

Grant Chu Covell

[November 2000. Orginally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

New from Pogus (Pogus Productions, 50 Ayr Road, Chester, NY 10918-2409; fax: 509.357.4319; http://www.pogus.com/; pogal@frontiernet.net) comes a new release from If, Bwana titled Clara Nostra, for 106,476 clarinets (Pogus P21019-2). Yes, that’s not a typo, it really is 106,476 clarinets. Clocking in at 62:54, Clara Nostra is a composite created by Al Margolis (clarinet and tape manipulation) using over-dubbing, mixing, speeding up and slowing down—much slowing down—of the taped sound of a clarinet. It sounds exactly like what you think as many clarinets might sound like: mellow, sonorous, reedy and nasal. But the multiple layers add great reverberation and pulsing (beating is the technical term). Clara Nostra demands a big space for an audition: though originally intended as elevator music for an art gallery (!), I envision slow Tarkovsky-like pans across barren landscapes, or huge Rothko canvases lit by fluorescent lights scrutinized from just 4 inches away. This is one of those rare pieces that makes you really think about the space you’re listening in. I don’t listen to this everyday, but repeated listening is rewarding and absorbing. I want to take this CD and demo others’ sound systems. I want to go someplace and hear this being played, have that place open up for me, and then savor that moment just before I recognize what magical sounds I am hearing.

Immediately after Clara Nostra, I reach for Horatiu Radulescu’s Inner Time II, Op. 42, “Homage to Calder” for seven b-flat clarinets played by the wonderfully named Armand Angster Clarinet System on Auvidis Montaigne (MO 782030). This is a live recording from the first performance (Sept. 22, 1993) and comes in at 56:02. This piece is for a mere seven clarinets, but it uses just 42 pitches, all of which are partials from the same overtone scale. Viscously microtonal when the clarinets play up high, each player has just 6 pitches for the entire piece. It’d be cruel to say that speeding up Clara Nostra would make the Radulescu, or that slowing down the Radulescu would result in Clara Nostra. They are similar because of the multiple clarinets, the density and the initial wall monolithic sound, but beyond that they plunge into and explore completely different aspects of the sounds of massed clarinets.

Now, I really don’t know why I like music like this (I’ve written similar monolithic works myself: one had a fire during it, but that’s another story.). Perhaps it’s the extremes involved: playing only six pitches for an hour, multi-tracking to get 106,476 layers! Most likely it’s the conviction of the composers to focus on a seemingly absurd concept and explore it so extensively and with such conviction that it stands up on its own.

Leo Kupper is a phenomenal composer of electroacoustic music. My first encounter was his 1988 Litanea on the “Magisteres and Prizes of the 17th International Electroacoustic Music Competition, Bourges 1989″ put out by Le Chant De Monde/Harmonia Mundi (LDC 278049/50). Litanea is a clever piece of seemingly effortless technique that works rhythmic blocks of what sound like snips of religious vocal material (litanies?) with what sound like the whirring chatter of some electronic gadgetry. I say “what sound like” since Kupper balances the sounds on that thin edge where the vocal material may actually be synthesized, and the electronic gadgetry may be sped up voices. I don’t really want to know what the sounds really are since I like how the resulting sounds fuse into fascinating unclassifiable shapes.

I met Ways of the Voice (Pogus P21018-2) with trepidation because it touches upon a medium I dread, and because the CD title and cover art suggest something awful and synthesized. Bear in mind that I am not a fan of contemporary vocal music. Most works with voice, even voice and tape, such as classics by del Tredeci, Carter, Babbitt or Dodge, make me squirm with impatience!

Ways of the Voice documents the joyful collaboration between Kupper and the Brazilian mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Kieffer. This is a magnificent and enthralling CD that thoroughly stretches and redefines the medium of voice and electroacoustic music. Kupper’s technical finesse is evident through the four works on this disc; Kieffer is a virtuosic singer, very expressive and with a voice of great warmth. This CD is a joy to listen to. I just wish this disc had a better title and cover art that better reflected the uniqueness of its contents.

Ways of the Voice flirts with the indigenous music of Brazil, its rainforest sounds, and its birdsong. This isn’t campy armchair ethno-music or domesticated Messiaen birdsong. Kupper explores language, phonemes and syllables and brings us a core or primal understanding of the language and sounds of Brazil.

I put Kupper into the same exclusive category with Mâche, Aperghis and Scelsi for what they have done for the voice, even if it borders on the theatrical, which I know alienates many. I’m not talking about highly ornate vocal techniques or sprechstimme as in Berio or Schoenberg. I’m talking about working with language, phonemes, syllables, and sound production along the Dadaist vein of Schwitter’s Ursonate, a music that explores the basics of sound production and treats individual syllables and phonemes as motives to be developed in their own right.

Besides Kupper’s technique and intentions, another wondrous aspect is his humor. At least, I find great humor in this music. The last piece, Annazone (1985), the earliest and shortest, underscores this perfectly: the piece is framed by orchestral chords, a 19th century tutti that might prepare for the recapitulation in a sonata form or mark the start of an aria. These orchestral gestures are clearly pre-recorded and are out of context from the rest of the work. This stylized framing puts the body of the work–interwoven lines of etude-like vocal gestures that imitate and develop the accompanying bird songs — into high relief. Or maybe it’s the bird songs that are accompanying the voice. Either way, the orchestral chords remind us that we’re listening to a recording involving manipulation of sound.

A richly decorated monument from a foreign land describes Matthew Ostrowski’s Vertebra (Pogus P21016-2), an invigorating four-movement, nearly 46-minute electroacoustic composition. Ostrowski’s program notes are ankle-deep in the pretentiously absurd, but the notes combined with the artwork are wonderfully enigmatic (but maybe it’s a translation problem). In a major chain, I saw this CD filed in the “???” bin, and it was the only thing there.

Vertebra is a skillful, almost frenzied changing collage of sounds. According to the notes: “This is a recording of a live performance: one member of a set of possible solutions. Vertebra is a computer program, an environmental construction, a scaffold, in which the activity of making sense and it’s [sic] suspensions are not merely illustrated, but actually taking place.”

Some sounds are purely electronic, some taken from the real world, some sound as if they are processed real-time from an extensive library of pre-recorded sound. I hear excerpts taken from (or intentionally mimicking) Xenakis, Chion, and Wishart, and one recognizable snippet of Glinka does hurriedly pass by. This type of montage is very difficult to bring off and to sustain for 40+ minutes. I sense a deeper program going on, something along the lines of a creation myth, or perhaps each movement contains material that is somehow grouped or linked by a common thread. This is definitely rewarding stuff.

Kenneth Gaburo’s Tape Play (Pogus 21020-2) contains ten tape compositions from 1964 to 1992. Gaburo combined tape with instruments throughout his career; these ten works are the complete works for solo tape. From the notes we learn that “…each of his electronic works of the 1970’s and 1980s was produced by a unique process that involved some sort of physicality, some unique way of involving his body in the production of the sound.” There are but three pieces on this CD which fall into these two decades (5 are from the 1960s when Gaburo was at the University of Illinois, 3 are from the 1990s). The notes also indicate that Gaburo used drew upon his subconscious to create these works.

These are gentle and humane pieces, and not just because we are aware of the composer’s physicality. Gentle and humane does not mean that the sounds are never brash or abrasive, or that this is new age music. Gaburo sustains much less aggression, violence and the grotesque than you will find in most electroacoustic music (Xenakis and Chion for example). I image Gaburo caressing his sound sources, treating them like a good and fair listener would, letting them speak for themselves, gently coaxing them into a pleasing order and configuration, and then not fussing with the piece when he is done.

An audible technique that Gaburo uses extensively but is surprisingly rare in the works of others is to make the left and right channels completely discrete. This means that there is no panning across the stereo field, and if you were to listen with headphones each ear would hear entirely different material. Is this to emphasize the nature of listening? Of the different states of creating and listening, each channel meant to comment upon the other?

My favorite cut is the Wasting of Lucrecetzia (1964), a 3:43 minute romp using repeated loops of wild saxophone, percussion and screaming. It’s surprisingly benign considering how frenetic it is.

Travels of the Spider: Electroacoustic Music from Argentina (Pogus P21015-2) contains seven compositions by five composers: Daniel Schachter, Ricardo Dal Farra, Martin Alejandro Fumarola, Alejandro Iglesias-Rossi and Teodoro Cromberg. This CD reflects a variety of sensibilities and is a good and varied CD that I’ve come to like more and more. Works like Schachter’s Tiempo Quebrado (1993) and Cromberg’s Marimbagenes (1996) for marimba and tape are lively, and present the most classic use of computer sounds.

Dal Farra’s brief …Due Giorni Dopo (1988) is a brisk work that simply and skillfully manipulates synthesized speech. Dal Farra is also represented by Ashram (1991) for mukha veena (an Indian double reed instrument) and tape. The piercing reedy and nasal quality of the mukha veena is exploited in the accompanying tape part.

Fumarola’s works are both concerned with walks and navigation: Callejuelas (1996) is an aural representation of possible walks through the streets of Madrid. El Peregrinar de la Arana (1995) is about navigating through linked web pages on the Internet (and gives the CD its title). Callejuelas seems like it will become tedious: most of the piece uses the classic synthesized plucked string sound (it sounds like a harpsichord, and anyone who has worked with a synthesis language like Common Music or Csound knows this sound well). Welcome changes occur with sudden rapidity, and gradually the piece confounds all expectations with the enormous variety Fumarola wields from the simple plucked sound.

Iglesias-Rossi’s Ascencion (1998) uses pre-recorded sound. Sacred choral music from Europe and indigenous South American music is ingeniously melded and transformed to create a vision of the Ascension. Just past the center there’s a persistent pulsing (native percussion? noise?) that never overwhelms but recedes back into the texture. This work has much potential for interpretation: some moments make me think of the noise heard inside an airplane, others recall Ligeti’s massed textures in Atmospheres or Requiem.

Hats off to Al Margolis, the force behind Pogus, for curating and nurturing these projects into being! [Amen. Ed.]