Thursday, October 11, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "What Is Sound?" (on Reidemeister Move)

what is sound?
by Douglas Messerli

Reidemeister Move (Robin Hayward and Christopher Williams) / Los Angeles, REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), the performance I attended was on Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Named after the mathematical theory of knots, the performers of Reidemeister Move combine theories of music developed by Berlin’s echdtzeitmusik scene and Fluxus leader La Monte Young’s ideas of “Eternal Music,” often described as “dream music” or “drone music”: undertones, noise, spatial resonance and overtones are fused together to create a kind of ethereal mix of sounds.

     The two players of the group, British-born Robin Hayward and University of California, San Diego educated Christopher Williams, combine an oddly shaped microtonal tuba (Hayward) and a contrabass (Williams), this one that looks a bit like it has been stored in a painter’s studio, to structure overlying sounds with alternating long tones which challenge and define each musician’s following passages.
     The last piece of the evening, Borromean Rings (by Hayward, created in 2011) does just that, as the tuba and contrabass take turns in musical refrains which either resolve or stimulate each other to new refrains. If there is often a sense in this piece that the phrases may sson resolve and lead to a hushed standstill, the second player often follows with a different tonal register which the challenges the first to take it in yet new directions, and so on, Williams occasionally tapping the strings to create new rhythmic possibilities which keep the piece moving forward in a series of tuba chugs and long bow antiphonal responses that help put us on the edge of the seat as we wait for what seems like a resolve and/or closure of the piece. We feel, time and again, this must be the final bowing only to have the closure challenged by a different harmonic register, almost as if the two players were challenging one another to go in new directions or to “give it up” to harmonic resolution.
      One feels time and again excited and a bit uneasy with the intense playful shifting of the opposing instrumental variances. But it is just the oddity of tuba and contrabass that create a tonal dissonance that makes everything endlessly entertaining.
      The first piece of the evening, by Williams and Charlie Morrow, from 2012, emanates from AndrĂ© Breton’s “occultist” work, itself modeled on his relationship to women and to tarot cards. The book was written on the eastern coast of Quebec at Rocher PercĂ©, and thus the composers incorporate the sounds of the sea, gannets, flapping flags, and somewhat surrealistic-sounding emanations of the stars within the piece. In this work the tuba, at moments, often has the feeling of a fog horn lost in the dark met by the lower and higher responses of the clearly more feminine aspect of the work through the long tones of the contrabass.
      This piece had a particular significance to me, since my Sun & Moon Press published the first English language translation, by Zack Rogow, of Breton’s work with a colorized picture of that great coastal rock. I reprinted it several times in my Green Integer series.
      Certainly, this group’s music is not for everyone—although I wish it might be—but in indirect ways La Monte Young’s music and the later works of this group might be said to be related to the compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, music that in its very repetitions and shifting tonalities demand careful listening and learning of what sound is all about.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2018

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