Mode Releases, late 1990's

archived critiques by DAN WARBURTON, Paris Editor

All of these discs are available from Mode Records, also on the web at

Contents of this page:
Iannis Xenakis, Edgard Varèse
Naima, Roland Dahinden
Howard Skempton
Gerard Pape
Vox Nova, Dusapin, In the sky...
David Tudor
January 99 Releases

Iannis Xenakis
Edgard Varèse
Philip Larson / Timothy Adams
Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic / Juan Pablo Izquierdo

Since the brouhaha surrounding the extreme brevity of his recent Proms commission, rumors have been circulating about the health of 77-year old Xenakis, whose recent works have tended to be modest in scope and relatively similar in sound--as if he were now trying to sound like Xenakis instead of just being Xenakis. “Dömmerschein” (meaning--perhaps significantly--”Rays of Twilight”) is an eleven-minute orchestral piece from 1994 which, despite its title, never quite manages to shine. The trademark clusters sound heavy and soggy, whereas in earlier works (“Kekrops”, “Jonchaies”) they were vicious blows; the glissandi which sounded like music from another planet in the late fifties are now weeping apologies. Similarly, “La Déesse Athéna” (1992), despite virtuoso falsetto shrieks from Philip Larson and fine solo percussion from Timothy Adams, stays comfortably inside well-charted territory--the wind writing in extreme registers (here recalling more than ever before the influence of Varèse's “Octandre”) is predictably gruff and user-unfriendly, but nip back into your record collections for a blast of 1969's “Anaktoria” to make your hair really stand on end. Fortunately there is a piece of vintage Xenakis included here, a long-awaited new recording of 1969's percussion classic “Persephassa” (hands up those of you with the old silver Philips vinyl with the Percussions de Strasbourg). “The piece exploits in a new manner the Screen Theory or the logical function of residue classes modulo m”, Xenakis tells us, though if you haven't managed to make it through his book “Formalized Music” yet (don't worry, not many have) this doesn't matter; the fact that the work was written and scored from thousands of mathematical calculations makes no difference--this is still going strong after thirty years. “I don't need the calculations anymore,” Xenakis said in a 60th birthday interview in 1982. Comparing “Dömmerschein” to “Persephassa” leads me to conclude that maybe he does after all.
Instead of filling up the disc with other Xenakis orchestral music (when is someone going to get round to recording “Eridanos”? what about a spanking new digital “Pithoprakta”?), Juan Pablo Izquierdo opts for Varèse's 1921 classic “Amériques”, in so doing inviting comparison with the mighty Boulez NYPO recording. In fact, the Carnegie Mellon students equip themselves rather well, and the mix brings out some odd pockets of instrumental activity I hadn't noticed before--though I suspect this is down more to good luck: the mic placing is strange (it seems the principal bassoon and timpani paid extra to get one of their own) and the performance is occasionally marred by clicks and rustlings. That said, the ending knocks Boulez out of the ballpark, thanks to the apocalyptic baritone fire siren from the local Mount Lebanon Fire Station--God help your ears if ever your house burns down in Pittsburgh..

Roland Dahinden
Roland Dahinden/Anthony Braxton/Joe Fonda/Art Fuller

Odd to see Mode--predominantly a “contemporary classical” label--venturing into free jazz, until you remember that Roland Dahinden has recorded Cage, Wolff and Lucier, and that his sparring partner here, Anthony Braxton, has always sought to straddle the turbulent gulf between improvisation and composition. “Free Lines, part one” finds the two horns working their way--more or less together--through a melodic minefield of angular chromaticism, with drummer Art Fuller tagging along for company. Eventually things take off, Dahinden unleashing a spectacular upper register display, Braxton providing some trademark rubbery flurries, Fuller's elastic brushwork recalling an earlier Braxton drummer, Barry Altschul on the classic 70s Circle albums. The half-sung multiphonic plunger chords Albert Mangelsdorff first amazed us with twenty years ago are now standard modern trombone technique, and Dahinden has mastered them--check out his quietly intense cover of Coltrane's “Naima.” Braxton lays out on his own “Composition 136” (hardly a user-friendly title, but at least he's abandoned those crazy diagrams), bassist Joe Fonda joining Fuller to make up a dynamite trio unit. “Free Lines, part two” works along the same lines as part one, with melodic lines of a more sustained nature (as result the music feels more pastoral, melancholic); strangely, the edgy dissonances somehow remind me of the harmonic language of Steve Coleman, though Braxton's fluffy attack and grainy sustain are light years away from M Base's austere precision. Once more, things pick up with some wicked mute work from Dahinden--on the strength of this album I'd say he was, along with Frenchman Yves Robert, one of the hottest trombonists around right now. Let's hope the avant garde Mode subscribers use this fine album to springboard into the world of free, and, in the other direction, Braxton fans will see fit to check out other excellent releases on the label.

Howard Skempton:

Whatever happened to English Experimental Music? Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman used to go to the football every Saturday afternoon; Bryars's Experimental Music Catalogue was a wonderful ramshackle affair run from his London home (I still remember the thrill of opening my plastic box containing George Brecht's "Water Yam"..); Brian Eno's Obscure records were eagerly anticipated (probably the worst quality vinyl pressings I've ever heard). Now, a quarter of a century on; Cardew has been dead for most of it (horrible accident or fascist conspiracy?); Bryars is busy churning out reams of baleful ECM; and Nyman, after The Piano and The Piano Concerto, has hit upon The Film Soundtrack That Pays The Bills Very Nicely Thank You Very Much.. Oh, and Obscure Records are back (on CD, thankfully)..

Other figures of English Experimentalism didn't achieve the same acclaim as Gavin, Michael and Brian, however. One such unjustly neglected figure is Howard Skempton (born in Chester in 1947, now resident, appropriately enough for his self-effacing image, in the Midlands town of Leamington Spa), whose music is finally available to us on this excellent CD, lovingly played by HCD (an offspin of the Ensemble Modern) and Skempton himself on accordion. "Webern meets Satie for a cup of tea" goes Mode's marketing spin, but there's a rich vein of traditional English folk to Skempton's music too, especially evident in the accordion pieces. The music is arranged in a roughly symmetrical order around the two "Surface Tension" pieces, the second of which is the CD's longest track at just under eight minutes (the shortest piece included is 1969's "African Melody", a cello snapshot of twelve seconds!). "Surface Tension I" (1975) is a gently flowing piece reminiscent of Satie (anticipating Bryars' late seventies works, such as "The Vespertine Park" by several years), while "Surface Tension II" is worthy of Feldman at his finest, a beautifully scored study in stillness. The 1980s song settings--pay special attention to the composer's own texts--are splendidly sung by that doyenne of British sopranos, Sarah Leonard, and the solo instrumental works (variously for cello, horn, viola, flute and oboe) played with deceptive simplicity. The accordion works "Recessional" and "Lament" are especially touching; Skempton writes in his minimal (obviously) liner notes that

"most of the pieces were written for friends. Writing small, occasional pieces has been central to my life as a composer. They can be written quickly, disseminated cheaply and performed frequently. Other factors are a delight in immediacy, a passion for refinement and compression and an absorption in sound itself.."

As the twentieth century stumbles to a close in a confused daze of apocalyptic prophecy and information overload, it's comforting to know that composers such as Skempton are out there, writing pieces as simple, modest and--let's not be ashamed to say it--beautiful as "Under the Elder". A truly magnificent CD--go buy it.

Gerard Pape
Arditti Quartet/Daroux/Isherwood/Kientzy/Vox Nova/ 2e2m/Méfano

As director of UPIC, an alternative to IRCAM--yes, they do exist--set up to explore the interaction between music and technology, one might expect this French composer's work to bear some resemblance to UPIC's founding father and leading light Iannis Xenakis. There is a strident, plangent quality to “Le Fleuve du Désir” (1994), for string quartet and tape, but whereas Xenakis's string writing has always tended towards brutal scratchiness, coupled with “objective” lack of vibrato, Pape's pulsating surfaces point rather to musique spectrale (Scelsi is namechecked in his copious liner notes, though Radulescu and Grisey also come to mind). Timbral considerations aside, Pape has a fine feel for the vocal line, be it lyrical on “Two Electro-Acoustic Songs”, snarling and animal on “Battle”, or declamatory on “Monologue”, this latter yet another setting of Beckett, his “A Piece of Monologue”, superbly delivered by baritone Nicholas Isherwood, Pape joining the long list of composers (Berio, Reynolds, Barrett, Kurtag..) seeking inspiration from Beckett--though to my mind only Morton Feldman truly captured that writer's quiet desperation.” Makbénach” (1997), for saxophone, ensemble and tape, is the closest we get to Xenakis in its gritty ugliness--saxophonist Daniel Kientzy's vibrato, though presumably deliberate, is not to this listener's taste (why do all “classical” sax players sound this way?). Oh, a word of warning from someone who learnt more from album liner notes than from college teachers: Pape's discussion of Julio Estrada's “continuum theory” will not necessarily help you appreciate the music--instead, careful and concentrated listening will bring its rewards.


Songs of the Native Americans / Works of Dusapin, Stockhausen

Sitting Bull and Cree teepees adorn the CD book, but purists beware: there are only eight minutes of folk songs here, which, despite percussion, sound distinctly European (somewhere between Fauré's “Requiem” and Stravinsky's “Les Noces”--when did the Tlingits sing in perfect close harmony?). Pascal Dusapin's “Red Rock” is a pleasant but brief outtake from his opera “Romeo and Juliet”, with extra “ethnic” percussion, and Stockhausen's “In The Sky I Am Walking...” sets Indian texts but uses no Native American musical material--calling this “Songs of the Native Americans” is a bit like selling Mahler's “Song of the Earth” as Traditional Chinese Music.. Still, Nicholas Isherwood and Isabelle Soccoja's interpretation of Stockhausen's 1972 vocal duet is impressive, even if it takes certain liberties: Isherwood incorporates his Tuva-inspired “diaphonic singing”, Soccoja adds something called “erotic whispering”, and they transpose the whole piece down a minor third, substantially changing its tone color. Anyone expecting “Hymnen”-style post apocalyptic electronica might be disappointed: this curious but touching work may look back to “Stimmung” and “Telemusik” in its intoning of magic names, but more importantly it prefigures the melodic simplicity of the later “Licht” operas. As a work of music theatre, there are necessarily some elements not appreciable on disc, though the ending with the singers receding into the distance is magical.

David Tudor

I've got this problem with my Walkman: every time I pass a shop window with neon lights, or someone passes me using a mobile phone, it buzzes, clicks and generally interferes with whatever I happen to be listening to. However, I don't mind if I'm listening to Cage, or to one of his “school”--I always took that “let sounds be themselves” line to be the perfect excuse for hanging on to scratchy vinyls that I would otherwise have returned straightaway to the shop--the crackles and fizzes go very well with this fine new recording of David Tudor's “Rainforest.” Tudor was of course legendary as Cage's right hand man for many years, firstly as an exemplary pianist, later as sound designer and long-standing partner in their collaborations with Merce Cunningham, for whom “Rainforest” was originally conceived in 1968. Fewer people know Tudor the composer, and the relative paucity of recorded work hasn't helped--apart from the long-deleted Lovely album with “Pulsers” and “Untitled”, what else has there been? Well, I once saw a vinyl of “Rainforest” (one of Cunningham's more memorable creations, thanks to Andy Warhol's free-floating helium-filled Mylar pillows) in a junk shop in Rochester, New York.. That was just the first version of the piece, a 21-minute performance of which--by Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi--makes up the first part of this disc; “Rainforest” evolved over the years into a group composition/installation featuring input from John Driscoll, Phil Edelstein, Bill Viola and others. A number of objects are suspended from the ceiling in a large performance space and made to vibrate and resonate as sound-producers, Tudor typically recording, mixing and playing back the resulting sound into the installation, making “the entire electro-acoustic apparatus.. an ecologically balanced sound system” (Gordon Mumma). The second piece on this disc, “Sliding Pitches in the Rainforest in the Field Rainforest Version IV”, is a montage of recordings made in the installation (at the ICA in London?) by John Driscoll. As such it is but a snapshot of a vast landscape, but an absolutely fascinating one. Extended post-ambient drifting is certainly in vogue right now--if you have recently invested in Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band, the empty soundscapes of Thomas Küner, or the hurdy-gurdy ramblings of Keiji Haino, then “Rainforest” is right up your street, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. Brilliant.

Christian Wolff
The Barton Workshop

A true Leninist would argue that art in a smoothly running socialist state would become redundant and disappear, though while waiting for such a perfect society to come about, we have an idea of what socialist literature, painting, sculpture and cinema are like. But what does socialist music sound like? Luigi Nono? Eisler? Robert Wyatt? The Ex? Well, all four.. and you may add Christian Wolff to the list. Like fellow experimental composers Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski, Wolff eventually decided to dedicate his art to bringing about precisely those social changes that post-1989 mobile phone culture has tried to have us believe are not necessary. However, while Cardew's vision of free music with AMM gradually gave way to banal workers' songs, and Rzewski ended up opting for the Romantic--and necessarily bourgeois--grand variation cycle for “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”, Wolff (born 1934) has been quietly working away at his own form of social struggle, evolving a musical language somewhere between Wolpe, Eisler and Copland. Wolpe and Eisler perhaps not surprisingly--the former was the adopted elder statesman of the New York School (Wolff has inherited his fondness for tight, cellular motives), while the latter was the perfect committed socialist composer, duly churning out reams of plodding grey music, athletic All-Bran for the masses. Wolff has unfortunately picked up a bit of East German roughage too, though with Copland's ear for clean line and uncluttered texture, this music is a bracing walk through the New England countryside rather than a grueling sprint round an indoor track in some drab East German town. Quite what the masses would make of it is open to question--instead of taking his music to them and risking the blank incomprehension that met Luigi Nono when he took “La Fabrica Illuminata” to workers in an Italian car factory, Wolff has hidden himself away teaching that most erudite of subjects, classics, presumably devoting himself to composition in his spare time. Ultimately, whether this music works or not politically depends on your particular inclination--what is clear is that any disc of new work by this woefully under-recorded composer is most welcome, and minor quibbles such as Judith van Swaay's funky English accent in the title track and the Barton Workshop's rather dry, boxed-in acoustic don't matter too much. Let's hope Mode continue their rediscovery of Wolff's music.. dare we hope for some Cardew soon too?

For more fun, see our interviews with leading improvisors and composers: toy virtuoso Eugene Chadbourne, guitar virtuoso Fred Frith, and piano virtuoso Misha Mengelberg. (And did you know about Misha's pet parrot?)