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Saxophone and cello - beyond themselves, beyond us.

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Tonight's edition of The Sound Barrier came about by the pure chance of an email, when Melbourne saxophonist and sound artist Rosalind Hall contacted me to let me know about her latest recording, Gossamers with Judith Hamann. It brought together two instruments that are not typically associated with one another – saxophone and cello – and the unique sounds that they each, and together, bring from their instruments on this new release from Caduc Recordings inspired me to think and dig a little more about other works that had taken these instruments out of their conventional comfort zones.

It was an interesting exploration because, through it, I found not only new and interesting ways of working with these instruments, but also music that was all, in different ways, tied together by its challenge of the limits that so often seek to define and contain us.

Both the beginning of the show and its end took us into the dizzying heights of the musical cosmosphere, with music that floated and whirled in space, disembodied, disengaged from normal space and time.

In the case of the opening work, which was in fact the one that started this exploration as well as the show, Gossamers by Rosalind Hall on saxophone and Judith Hamann on cello, those sounds pierced and pulsated the barriers of both instruments, where the sonic worlds of each met and merged. The ringing tones were like a moistened finger running around the edge of the cosmos, sine tones from the fifth dimension, a fragile and resilient at once, like the gossamer of the music's title.

Both of these musicians are famed for exploring the limits of their instruments, but when they come together the adventure of those explorations is intensified as the unique timbres of each penetrates into and resonates with the other. It's meditative music, but not in the conventional sense. It leads you to contemplate not only the edge of what is knowable, but also of what is bearable. Its sounds are intense, knife-like sharp, and yet somehow strangely restful too, as if it is luring you with the message that the only thing that makes it threatening is your own distance from it.

There is a similarly piercing intensity, from a similarly distant part of space, in EDENTIA, for soprano saxophone and electronic music, by Karlheinz Stockhausen, with which the show ended. Its tones too are mostly highly pitched but, unlike the long sustained tones of Gossamers, here they spin in frenzied loops in the piece's three layers of electronic sound which provide a kind of alien story from another corner of the cosmos, upon which the solo saxophone reflects and comments as each of the electronic layers' 24 sections are introduced in the stratospheric Sprechstimme of Kathinka Pasveer, the composer's collaborator and partner who helped realise this work into this recording shortly after his death in 2007.

EDENTIA is the 20th part of the 21 completed parts of KLANG ('SOUND'), which was conceived as a cycle of 24 pieces, one representing each hour of the day, left unfinished when Stockhausen died. The 14th to 21st 'hours' of KLANG all build on the material of the 13th 'hour', COSMIC PULSES, itself a 24-layered electronic work where each layer is constructed out of its own unique electronic loop. Each loop has between one and 24 notes in it, each has its own unique tempo and pitch and together, the 24 are spatialised across a total of 241 trajectories through eight sets of loudspeakers.

After COSMIC PULSES, the next pieces in KLANG each take three of those 24 layers, and either a solo instrumentalist, or a solo singer, performs alongside those three layers. The series starts with the bottom three layers (that is, layers 24, 23, and 22) with a bass singer in the 14th 'hour', HAVONA and ends with the top three layers (3, 2, and 1) in the 21st 'hour', PARADIES, with flute.

EDENTIA, as the 20th hour, has layers 6, 5, and 4 as its electronic base, into which Kathinka's voice is woven, speaking first of the nature of Edentia itself – a huge 'architectural sphere' on which the government of Norlatiadek, the constellation in which our own plant Urantia is located, resides. It, like all these final works of KLANG draws from ideas and images from The Urantia Book, a huge esoteric theological/mythological text which had deeply impressed Stockhausen over many years of his life and these pieces in particular, draw on the names of various places, universes, and super-universes from The Urantia Book, translating their concepts into music. As the pieces slowly move from the unfathomable depths of HAVONA to the piercing heights of PARADIES, the massive cosmic whirlpool of COSMIC PULSES is, bit by bit, untangled and takes its listeners on the same journey upwards that Stockhausen believed he, too, was taking.

You can only wonder what those final three pieces of KLANG would, or could, have been. Maybe it was of their essence, that they were never to be imagined, much less heard.

If the space-time spheres of music like Gossamers and EDENTIA seem remote and alien, difficult at times to assimilate into our own, perhaps the Time and Motion Study II of Brian Ferneyhough tells us something of the nature of that alienation. This work for vocalising cellist and live electronics works with the idea of the human incapacity to comprehend the enormity of reality and of our tendency to instead assemble it in bits, based on the conventions of how the people and things around us lead us to make a particular sense of everything. But these constructions we build confuse and oppress us, says Ferneyhough, and ultimately destroy us, because they are only re-assembled versions of the 'everything' that comprises the world and who we are within it.

From that 'everything' that eludes us, or of which society by its conventions robs us, he says, we perceive only the points on a continuum, each leading into something else. Experiences and perceptions build into and out of one another. This is represented in the music where the compositional processes themselves behave in this way, leading into one another but never totally being lost, because something of each is always brought into the next.

There is a kind of dialectic relationship between the solo cello and the live electronics, as they interact and combine. The electronics, says Ferneyhough, are like an unearthly double to the cello, repeating and transforming some of what the cello does, but in a conversation that goes only one way: the electronics, like the public sphere of society, picks up bits and pieces of the individual and changes them into its own language. In this way, the work is a metaphor for the human place in a world that is constantly reflecting and contextualising, but in the process distorting, the expressions of the private into the realm of a commodified and disengaged society that can never see or speak to us as we do ourselves. Our lives are alienated from our own humanity.

It suggests, perhaps, that the alien worlds of music – Gossamers or EDENTIA, maybe – music that seems sometimes to reside in a space and time beyond us, are not what is alien at all, but rather ourselves, fragmented and disassociated from ourselves by our absorption in convention's selective attempts to distort who we are.

Guiding all of this, through its ungraspable trajectory through time, and its distorting motion between soloist and electronics, is Ferneyhough's intensely meticulous notation, marking him as one of the seminal composers of the New Complexity school, which I discussed briefly on last week's show: music where all of the parameters of pitch, and duration, and timbre, and dynamics, are carefully controlled and precisely defined, in increments that were often hardly even imagined in earlier music, throughout the score.

Those unsettled connections between the human and the mechanical, that we heard between the cello and electronics of Ferneyhough's Time and Motion Study II, where the one was the voice of the individual human struggling against the dominance of the machinery of social discourse, resurface in a rather different way in Stefan Prins's Fremdkörper #2, composed in 2010 for soprano saxophone, percussion, electric guitar, piano and live electronics. It, too, explores the relationship between the human and mechanical, but in this piece, as in the two others in the Fremdkörper ('Foreign Body') series, the linking of the two is a more equivocal one. They share and change the dominating role, not exactly as equal partners, but more as two forces constantly tussling for supremacy. Through the intrusion of electronic sounds into the acoustic sounds, each loses their identity and, in their place, a new but ambiguous one emerges. Is it a consolidated whole that we hear in this music, or is it something constructed as a body out of foreign parts? The music does not seek to answer that question so much as to tell us that it is part of what human life is now about – a world infused with technology where dominance and integration are no longer clear.

The integration of human and machine in Fremdkörper #2 stands in contrast to, but not entirely at odds with, that of human and beast in Kottos for solo cello, composed by Iannis Xenakis in 1977. The beast is one of the fabled giants who fought with Zeus against the Titans: Kottos, with 50 heads and 100 arms, huge and furious. This is the being into which the human cellist must transform through the ferociously difficult playing of this piece, full of wild, feral force as if the instrument itself might burst from the savagery of the music the performer pushes it to play.

The unfamiliar territory into which tonight's show took the cello and the saxophone in all its pieces was not just about the extremes and edges of technique and sound that they enabled the instruments and their performers to navigate. It was also about the ideas and concepts of what it means to be human, located in time and space that is at once more limiting, and more expansive, than we sometimes can possibly imagine or handle.

Both the cello and the saxophone have perhaps been typecast a little in their musical histories – the cello with the more conventional classical repertoire, and the saxophone with jazz. It is fitting then that in these pieces from tonight's show, for either instrument or for both, were all pieces that wandered into places that challenged the conventional not only in the instruments, not only in music, but, through both of these, in us as well.

Don't forget you can check out both the audio and the playlist if you would like to listen back to the show or follow up the details of the recordings.

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