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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Harry Partch

eclectic reviews and opinions

Come Out and Play

Harry Partch

Delusion of the Fury

(Sony, 2000)

Karlheinz Stockhausen

(Arditti String Quartet)

Helicopter String Quartet

(Montaigne/Auvidis, 2000)

Fred Frith/Henry Kaiser

Friends & Enemies

(Cuneiform, 2000)

Most of the music you hear won't challenge your ideas of what is or isn't music. Rock or jazz may incorporate discordant elements, but it's frequently the sort of rule-breaking that emphasizes the rules: if a note sounds "wrong" or "unexpected," that's because the framework that the music is in has set up an expectation of what the note "should" be.

Even most music that doesn't use the Western tone system follows rules, just different ones. When you hear Indian tabla music in a restaurant, for example, you might not like it, but few people would say it isn't music at all. You can hear that the intervals and rhythms aren't the same as in Western music, but it's not just noise.

If you're sufficiently adventurous, though, you can find compositions that don't sound like music, or at least not the music you're used to. These three new recordings are pretty far "out" by most folks' standards. These aren't recordings for everybody, not easy listening by any stretch of the imagination. But by finding music in unexpected places, maybe, just maybe, recordings like these can change the way you hear the world. You might walk along a street, whapping things with a stick, just to see what sound they make. You might get a splitting headache. You might think a sequence of car horns is curiously pleasing. You might not hear your environment quite the same way.

In many ways Delusion of the Fury is the most conventional of these three recordings. It emphasizes percussive sounds much more than most orchestral music. But it still has recognizable, recurring melodic themes, some familiar rhythms, and even a plot -- a spiritual journey of sorts, drawing on Japanese and Ethiopian folk tales. But Harry Partch (1901-1974) was almost as much an inventor and a music theorist as a composer: he designed and built instruments with strange, evocative names like Cloud-Chamber Bowls, Quadrangularis Reversum, Harmonic Canon, and Spoils of War. Many of the instruments are percussive, with odd ringing or bent tones. Delusion of the Fury, Partch's last major work, is challenging and involving. Partch's use of human voices within the piece evokes monastic chanting. It is soothing, almost conventionally pretty in some places, restless and aggressive, even menacing in others. This reissue of the long out-of-print work is handsome, with notes from Partch's score, excerpts from his correspondence, an appreciation of the work, and photographs of the performers and the instruments.

At first it sounds like a joke. In the liner notes for Helicopter String Quartet, Stockhausen says "...And then I had a dream: I heard and saw the four string players in four helicopters flying in the air and playing." Stockhausen describes a complex scheme for transmitting images and sounds from the helicopters to four audiovisual towers, and then casually drops the real bomb: "Most of the time, the string players played tremoli which blended so well with the timbers and the rhythms of the rotor blades that the helicopters sounded like musical instruments." And that's what makes this a nearly amazing accomplishment. While a helicopter is usually firmly in the "noise" category, not the "music" category, in this case the listener's attention is forcibly drawn to the rhythmic and tonal qualities of the helicopters, and sometimes the jittery, skittery, tremoli do almost blend with the sound of the blades. On the other hand, Stockhausen's score makes for a string section that's much closer to "noise" than the likes of Mozart or Schubert. The piece begins with a 5-minute ascension, as the helicopters take off and the instruments slowly ascend the scale. The coda is perhaps the most successful section of the piece: as the copters land and the turbines wind down, the strings slip between and around the beats of the blades. Unfortunately the intervening 20-odd minutes may try the patience of many listeners, particularly because Stockhausen also includes vocalizations from the players in the recording; nearly everyone I've played it for has been distracted by the harsh, guttural syllables. (It's counting, a German speaker helpfully pointed out, and perhaps this was necessary for the musicians to stay in synch. But I still wish they'd used click tracks instead.) The liner notes are generous, with almost complete staging instructions (exact directions for successful negotiations with the Austrian Army for four helicopters and pilots are omitted) but disappointingly free of photographs of helicopters and musicians aloft.

The massive compilation Friends & Enemies -- two discs crammed with nearly 80 minutes of music each -- brings together two complete improvisational records by the duo of Frith & Kaiser from 1979 and 1983 with a full unreleased live album from 1984, and adds a handful of new improvisations from 1999. (Note for completists: This is more than twice as much material as on the previous CD compilation With Enemies Like These Who Needs Friends.) Much of what Frith and Kaiser play are "ordinary" instruments: guitars, basses, some programmed drums, the odd bit of piano or organ -- but the sounds they make are about as far from ordinary as you can get. The '79 material is the most extreme; much of it sounds like some sort of demented machine shop: clattering, buzzing, scraping, even howling. Strange little wood figurines adorn the album sleeve, and you could almost imagine that the wood was sculpted by the sounds themselves. The '83 and '84 compositions sound comparatively normal by comparison -- the instruments sound recognizably like guitars and basses again, at least most of the time. The '83 record also introduces programmed drums in a big way, imposing rhythm in places where you might not hear it otherwise. As the liner notes point out, Frith & Kaiser's experimentations prefigure some of what's going on right now in electronic music. It's still too weird to slip on at a dance club, but at times it sounds eerily current. (The 1999 material is closer in spirit to the first record; no sell-out here.) Here's maybe the best indication of how pervasively odd this music is: 6 tracks into Disc 1, Frith & Kaiser slip in a fairly straight acoustic reading of "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," and something so comparitively normal suddenly sounds strange in this context.

These reviews originally appeared in Snap Pop! magazine.


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