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The Sound Barrier ... being six

The Sound Barrier : Blog

The Sound Barrier first hit the airwaves exactly six years ago: well, almost. Back then it occupied the 2.00AM – 6.00 AM timeslot every second Monday morning, but it always felt more like Sunday night. And so now, with its current timeslot of 10.00 PM to midnight every Sunday night, this week's edition of the show, on 8th April, seemed as close as it was possible to get to a birthday for that bleary-eyed morning, in the wee hours of 9th April 2012.

So I decided to celebrate this year by looking back at the music I played on that show, and revisiting some of it tonight – but always from a slightly different angle, in ways that both paid tribute to the music that kicked off the show initially while acknowledging, at the same time, that the music from then has continued in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of directions.

Of course, back then it was a four-hour fortnightly show and so there was a lot more music on that inaugural edition than I could possibly revisit in the two hours I have now, so I decided to hone in on some of the special highlights, significant in different ways for The Sound Barrier both then and since:

Sofia Gubaidulina: Seven Words
The first show started off with a rather gentle work for multi-layered cellos and electronics by Icelandic composer and musician Hildur Guðnodóttir. I played it then because it typified what I was seeking to do in the show more generally – to explore new and inventive ways of making music, including with conventional instruments that have so often been typecast in more traditional formats. So I thought I would honour that same tradition, with a nod to that same instrument, the cello, on tonight's show with a marvellous work for cello, bayan, and strings by a composer whose work I am only newly discovering in depth, as I was only newly discovering that of Hildur Guðnodóttir back then: Sofia Gubaidulina from Russia. I have included her music on a few shows over the years but more recently I have been discovering more of it, and more in it and indeed played her work Offertorium for violin and orchestra only last week, as part of a tribute to the influence of Johann Sebastian Bach on 20th-century music. But tonight it was her Seven Words, a work inspired by accounts of the final words of Jesus on the Cross and, I thought, doubly apt to play this weekend to coincide with the Russian Orthodox Easter. Even more than last week's Offertorium, this piece shows the stunning brilliance and originality of Sofia Gubaidulina's use of instrumentation, incorporating the Russian bayan (an essentially folk-oriented button accordion) into the mix of otherwise conventional classical instruments. It evokes all kinds of wondrous colours and textures, and at the same time symbolises, for the composer, the story of the crucifixion, with the lofty classical cello and the earthy bayan of the people brought together, joined – a metaphor for the unity of divinity and humanity, so crucial an element in much of Sofia Gubaidulina's music and life, and through the ways in which both solo instruments slide back and forth across the music of the string orchestra, itself spreading out from unisons to widely separated octaves and back again, all in a kind of musical painting of the figure of the cross.

Diamanda Galás: Cris D'Aveugle
No less engaged with spiritual themes, but certainly from a very different perspective – full of terror and a kind of revolutionary rage borne of angered mourning – is the music of Diamanda Galás, whose immense and stunning vocal powers makes pretty well everything she does arresting, terrifying. In the first edition of the show I played her 'Cris D'Aveugle' from her phenomenally powerful Plague Mass, which was itself put together drawing from three of her earlier albums. One of those, and the one from which 'Cris D'Aveugle' came, was Saint of the Pit, and it was that original, and slightly longer, version that I turned to for tonight's show. 'Cris D'Aveugle' is a setting of the words of Tristan Corbière, a 19th-century French poet whose work, often grim and brutal, is something of a precursor to modernism and surrealism. 'Cris D'Aveugle' ('Blind Man's Cry') is nightmarish recasting of the Christian crucifixion, but with a sense of private human anguish and suffering woven into it. Diamanda Galás has featured occasionally, although not often, on The Sound Barrier over the last six years, but her genre-defying, convention-flouting, creativity, together with the sheer visceral intensity of her voice, spanning some six octaves, was one of the things that, from first hearing it many years before, helped spur my love of new and avant-garde music into directions that I had not until then really explored. It is that kind of raw energy and primal invention that, crafted with a prodigious talent, that is so crucial to what the show is all about.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: MIXTUR
Obviously the most consistent staple on the show's menu, featuring far more often than not, has been the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. I have written often, and elsewhere, about my deep respect and love for this composer's genius, his indefatigable energy for navigating new musical territory, solving new musical problems, along with his extraordinary capacity to create works of complex structural formality that are, at the same time, boundlessly creative and artistically dynamic. On the first show I played one version of his 1964 composition MIXTUR, a work that, for the first time, applied live electronics, though sine wave generators and ring modulators, to an orchestra in real time. The work is in 20 'moments', which can be played from 1 to 20, or from 20 to 1. The orchestra is in four main sections (woodwinds, bowed strings, plucked strings, and brass) each with its own sine-wave generator and ring modulator, plus a fifth section of three percussionists. These varied instrumental timbres, together with different uses of ring modulation, created a piece with constantly shifting colours, and spectral overtones, generating a whole new type of orchestral sound. Throughout many performances of the work, in both large and small orchestral versions, Stockhausen continually noted different ways of improving the piece, particularly in relation to the balance and timbres and use of sound equipment, to get the effects he wanted. This resulted in a largely newly-composed version of the work in 2003, which incorporated all these learnings, while still retaining the essential idea of varied sound timbres and overtones from the different orchestral groups and uses of ring modulation, as well as the forwards and retrograde versions of the work. In the first show I played the retrograde version in its small-orchestra version, which Stockhausen created in 1967 from the original 1964 score, but tonight I played the revised 2003 version, for a larger orchestra, but again in its retrograde version. This new version of MIXTUR is stunning, with an orchestra that sounds like no other orchestra has sounded – instruments transformed, in real time, into sounds from another dimension, sometimes which just the slightest hint of their original acoustic timbres, sometimes scarcely recognisable at all, and those other-world overtones slithering through the music as the sine-wave pitches shift and the effects of the ring modulation generate an ever-changing soundscape. It's a brilliant testament to Stockhausen's insatiable search for new sounds, and for new ways of combining them.

Merzbow: No 0603 (Merzmorphosis)
An important part of my own early ventures into music on the edge of music, and a huge obsession of mine in the early years of this decade, has been the Japanese noise-god Masami Akita, aka Merzbow. His huge musical output, from his very early experiments with rudimentary noise, assembled largely from household and backyard junk, to his more recent work with laptops, has been unrelentingly bold, not only in the obvious ferocity of so much of his work, but also in his unceasing ability to craft noise in new ways. No matter how brutal the sounds are – and some of them are very brutal indeed – they are always sculpted with deft and nuanced technique, layers of sound shifting and shaping in a way that, even amongst the hugely rich domain of noise music, and even with its many changes and development throughout his long career, is undeniably, inimitably his. On the first show I played a track from his then quite newly released 10 CD set, Merzbient, an assemblage of previously unreleased, more ambient Merzbow works from the late 1980s. Lust after that show went to air, a kind of sequel 10CD was released, Merzphysics which focussed on more unreleased work, from pre-synthesiser early 90s pure-noise period. I played some of that set a few weeks after the first show, and thought I would complete the cycle tonight with a release from the third and last of these 10CD releases, Merzmorphosis, released in mid-2012 but covering work from the mid-1990s when Merzbow had just begun to incorporate synthesisers into his work. It gave way to a whole new domain of noise-based music, and the track I played on tonight's show, No 0603 from 1996, its title referring to the identification labels on the original cassettes on which the works of all these three collections were recorded.

Anthony Pateras: Rêve Noir
An important pillar for The Sound Barrier from the very start, and whose music and presence has been a frequent part of the show ever since, is Australian compositional, improvisational, and performative wunderkind, Anthony Pateras. His work knows few boundaries, straying into the edges of all kinds of styles, both through his own hugely agile creativity and through the many and diverse collaborations in which he engages. On the opening show I played a track from his then newly released 5 CD set of his music from 2002-2012, the first on his own label, IMMEDIATA. So it seemed fitting to finishing off tonight's show with a track from the latest release on that same label: a brilliant collaboration with Stephen O'Malley (aka SOMA), known especially for his work with iconic drone-metal band Sunn 0))). That famous subterranean drone guitar shakes the foundations of the planet in this collaboration too, Rêve Noir ('Black Dream'), joined by Anthony Pateras on organ, tapes, piano, and electronics. It brings Anthony's trademark dismantling of musical types or genres, into the famous SOMA sound, as if the two, the frozen metal grip of SOMA and restlessly explorative energy of Pateras, have always belonged together, ferocious and pensive at once.

It has been a huge privilege presenting The Sound Barrier over the past six years, and I look forward to continuing with the show for many years into the future. I am hugely grateful to PBS for the opportunity, to the many hugely talented composers and musicians who have contributed their work, and, most importantly, to you for tuning in or logging on whenever you have been able to do so – whether it be just for a little bit now and then, or more often, or even if you just happened to stumble across something that piqued your interest. Birthdays are always such a great opportunity for both the celebrating and the celebrated to revel in the fact that they're there and, in that sense, they are always a celebration of both. So thanks for being part of the show, in whatever way you have, and therefore for also being part of this, our birthday. It's your day too, after all! You can, as always listen back and check out the playlist right here on the website. Here's to the next year and turning seven, and beyond!

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