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Daniel Coombs
Audiophile Audition, July 2011

There is a fine line between the art and craft of sound experimentation and a musically enjoyable experience. Certainly the work and philosophy of John Cage, Christian Wolff and others demonstrates and holds that experimentation is unto itself an artistically valid endeavor and that all “enjoyment” is relative to the listener. Actually, I agree, and therein lies the issue with this recording of the chamber music of Simon Steen-Anderson.

Steen-Anderson is a young Danish composer, presently working in Germany who has studied with Bent Sørensen (a formidable figure in today’s northern European scene) among others. His music relies on finding new ways of utilizing traditional musical instruments and sound sources. The pieces in this collection, for example, all utilize conventional instruments such as saxophone, strings, piano, percussion but also some very unconventional methodologies and sources. I admire the creativity here. The longest, and first work in the collection, “On And Off And To And Fro” calls for very closely miked saxophone, vibraphone and cello but also three players using battery-powered megaphones to pickup ambient sounds and to provide some of the megaphone “effects”—sirens, beeps, whirrs and clicks of many sorts. The piece contains moments of surprising little bursts of melodic figure and odd chords yet the feel is still quite improvised and aleatoric. The sixteen-minute duration is about all that interest could hold for me. “In Her Frown” for two performers using very close microphones and a variety of vocal sounds including breathing, hissing and blowing onto the edges of paper provides a similar experience. This piece, more than any other here, reminded me of some of the “experiments” of John Cage including his two “Music for Voice” pieces. The performances, at various points, do devise or improvise sounds that are nearly definable words and larynx created “white noise”. Again, very interesting at least and just about the right duration at ten minutes.

The two works involving piano I found the most enjoyable in my experience. “Rerendered” for pianist and two assistants who utilize close mikes while tampering with the insides of a grand piano to pluck, tap and perform glisses (perhaps with glass tumblers like a guitar slide) “Pretty Sound (Up and Down)” also utilizes the widest assortment of sounds that a piano can make when used percussively (including the lid and frame). Additionally, performer uses some sticky tape (maybe double sided?) to cause the strings to react slower and in a weird bizarre way to the keys and hammers. There are many moments in both of these pieces that remind me, again, of some of the classic prepared piano works like those of Cage and even the massive piano works of George Crumb (but whose music is far more emotional and theatrical). I reacted to these pieces the best maybe because I have a frame of reference. Piano—both traditionally played and non-traditionally—is a very recognizable timbre and I have listened to and played many works that provide me a sort of locus.

The final piece on this disc is Steen-Andersen’s “Study for String Instrument #2”. In this case, it is performed by both a cello and an electric guitar with an effect pedal. This piece is essentially an experiment in altered pitch and allowing the whammy pedal to alter, to blend with and to mimic the sounds capable of the cello and the guitar. The net effect is very electronic and somewhat interesting.

The issue with Steen-Andersen’s music, at least this small sampling, is that one can listen in a very analytical and open way, focusing on the sources of sounds, how they evolve and what they lead to and, perhaps, admiring the creativity along the way (as I did)  Or, one can listen to this music as one would any recorded music and just take in the sounds in the simplest, emotional way and enjoy the listening experience for its own sake (as I did not). I do think the composer is a creative person seeking new sources of expression and should be respected and admired for the work and new aesthetic involved. The performers in the Norway-based asamisimasa ensemble are clearly dedicated purveyors of the avant-garde and the sound engineering from Dacapo is clear and of highest quality. My fear is that this music might not appeal to a wide audience. Whether that matters to Mr. Steen-Anderson or not is unknown.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2011

‘In recent years the young Danish composer has made his name internationally with totally surprising ways of thinking and a great talent for transforming these ideas into original music’. I quote from the sleeve note on my first encounter with Simon Steen-Andersen, though I would question whether anything on this disc is music—in the generally accepted use of that word—or whether ‘sounds’ would be a more appropriate description. The sleeve explains that ‘the microphones are placed right up against the instruments so that all the small sounds and noises one normally tries to suppress take on a central role in the music’. The disc contains five ‘works’, ‘pieces’ or ‘experiments’, whichever description you find most appropriate, and calls for a diverse group of performers from the ‘saxophone, cello and three players with megaphones’ employed in the extended On And Off And To And Fro, to the solo piano for Pretty Sound (Up And Down) .The contents range from heavy sexy breathing to the more normal sounds of someone attacking the piano keyboard and its inner parts in Pretty Sound (Up And Down). Such ‘works’ have become the accepted norm in today’s contemporary scene that I often review, and poses questions as to where ‘music’ is going. Don’t knock it, as once upon a time people booed Stravinsky’s music, but you have to be heavily committed to experimentation to enter Steen-Andersen’s world, the final Study for String Instruments sounding as if an old LP is being quickly rotated backwards and forwards before eventually blowing the fuse. Listen, be pleased, annoyed or just purely inquisitive.

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