, 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.