Lost in sound: Catherine Lamb, Johnny Chang & Matchess
For the last couple of months I’ve found myself consistently yearning for sounds to get lost in. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this feeling correlates to the late 2018 release of Viola Torros (Another Timbre), a stunning collaboration between fellow composer-violists Catherine Lamb and Johnny Chang—who are both based in Berlin. Lamb’s music has been steadily creeping into my consciousness for several years, but it has achieved critical mass of late. If February I caught a mind-altering duo concert between Lamb and Chang at Edition Festival in Stockholm, and a few weeks later in Chicago a.pe.ri.od.ic gave the first local portrait concert of the former’s music as part of the musical festival I organize, Frequency Festival.
In January I got another heady dose of Lamb’s peculiar world of sound with the release of Atmospheres Transparent/Opaque (New World) featuring some dazzling, empathic performances by Ensemble Dedalus of France. I’ll say that my technical understanding of Lamb’s music lags behind the meditative pleasure I experience when I hear it, but I’m going to try my best to sort out some of those things here.
Viola Torros is a double CD, and the first disc is built around a project that attempts to flesh out the history and music of the titular musician, of whom the pair had discovered a few compositional fragments. It seems apparent that she is an imaginary figure—a delightful ruse invented by Chang and Lamb to create a freewheeling trajectory on which to pursue their own research. As presented in a vague sketch on the Wandelweiser website, the composers paint Torros as a nomadic figure, claiming that she was born in the Indus Valley and travelled, “as far east as present day Mongolia, as far south as Mauritania, and as far west as France,” active in the late Vedic period.
“V.T Augmentations II”--you can check out a ten-minute excerpt below--presents a mass of shifting harmony out of which terse yet arching melodic phrases emerge. The violas play lengthy, languid microtonal phrases that cling close to one another, suggesting a dance that’s both seductive and sleepy. Often, one of the violas plays shorter lines, either wrapping around or softly commenting on the other’s phrases. On the Another Timbre website, Lamb says, “When we first began to sound the fragments, we were looking at her various melodic materials and seeing how they seemed to always coexist with other elements that seemed contrary to those materials. So I remember we were sounding a tone together at the beginning, trying to find where the articulations of that tone suggested a melody.” Within the hazy melodic drift are wonderful psychoacoustic effects that initially had me wondering if I had missed the full instrumentation—were there trombones somewhere? To my crude ears the music drifts, using harmony and melodic shapes to reference different traditions, whether early music, Indian, or Arabic, which seems like a deliberate commentary on bastardized roots. The sound is thickened about halfway through when distant, wordless vocals from Antoine Berger, Yannick Guédon, and Deborah Walker (the latter two are members of Dedalus) and “resonances” by Bryan Eubanks enter—at one delicious point the strings drop out entirely, leaving a faint electronic tone amid sparse group harmony singing that feels almost liturgical at points.—and when they resume the movement and energy of the strings expands a bit, as if in dhrupad music. According to Lamb Eubanks is, “taking recordings of us playing in a space over time, and then use those to be the synths,” which create a ghostly shadow.
The Indian vibe is more explicit on “V.T Augmentations III,” which is pocked with exquisite sighs and silences. From the beginning those silences reveal the wondrous presence of chirping birds in the background. While there’s no missing the essential grain of the two violas, their phrases are remarkably voice-like, and the way they slowly build-up in complexity reminds me of the meticulously pitched dialogues of the Dagar Brothers. Once again a trio of wordless voices joins the fray—this time it’s Rebecca Lane, Annie Garlid, and Margareth Kammerer—and the “resonances” of Eubanks seem to be present nearly from the start of the piece, deftly liming and refracting the overtones of the violas.
The second disc features one work by each violist, and while they aren’t explicitly related to the Viola Torros project, they share common concerns and certainly fit well beside them. Chang’s “Citaric Melodies III” was performed by the Suidobashi Chamber Ensemble in Tokyo last year—Chang is a member, along with flutist Wakana Ikeda, violinist Yoko Ikeda, clarinetist Mashahiko Okura, guitarist Taku Sugimoto, bassoonist Aya Tanaka, bass clarinetist Samuel Dunscombe, and clarinetist Michiko Ogawa. A simple six-note pattern—later reduced to four notes--is played in patient cycles, with the arrangement delineating deliberately fuzzy entrances and departures of each ensemble voice, which results in constantly changing articulations. As Chang explained to Another Timbre’s Simon Reynell, “the musicians are given some guiding principles, which are specifically concerned with individual flexibility. The guidelines are less limitations but rather an invitation to consider (and reconsider) one’s decision-making with regards to melody-making, as well as interactive listening/responsive playing between the performers.” He adds, “The guidelines I decided upon for Citaric Melodies aim to recreate in each performance a specific emergence of melodic shapes and phrasings.” There’s a gorgeous hymn-like feel to the note sequence and it’s fascinating to hear how the close listening of the performers steadily forms new iterations.
Lamb’s “Prisma Interius VI (for v.t)” obviously references Torros in its dedication, but the work belongs to a different compositional series, the ninth of which occupies the bulk of the New World CD. All of the works use the “secondary rainbow synthesizer,” described below, using it as a kind of axis to experience the acoustic instruments through addition and subtraction. From the same set of interviews with Reynell:
They are in the same series because there are a few elements I’ve been trying to figure out, that seemed to consistently stream and evolve through the nine pieces, so they are indeed related in some ways. Some of the important elements are in fact major questions that have arisen while researching the Viola Torros fragments. For instance, where is the blur between melodic and harmonic components? Can melody be harmonic and harmony melodic? What if monody was actually emerging from total polyphony? What are the basic requirements for contrapuntal perceptions, and how might these counterpoints form a total shape together that is moving through dimensionalities?
The other element is finding the instrumental bridging roles in each piece, where musicians have a part in which a sympathetic transparency is created, through timbral or otherwise phenomenological attentions, so that one might hear through one material into another, then into the greater atmosphere around the sounding shapes being formed in the structure. Some of the parts have been considered as “highlighting” or “shadowing” parts, but the obvious, consistent one in the series is the role of the person playing the secondary rainbow synthesizer. This is an instrument I’ve been collaborating on with Bryan Eubanks since 2014, which applies live resonant band pass filters to whatever is being picked up from microphones placed near to the listening space. Ideally one could listen through the material into an infinite space, through to the surrounding environment, and find a means to connect it all together into one total form, which is the impetus for the title, a description in ideal terms.
So in Prisma Interius VI, Johnny’s part is a clear soloistic line played on the viola, which is being infused with/bridged with/highlighted by the synthesizer. Later in the piece the synthesizer role is replaced by the added strings, which are attempting to achieve a similar effect.
Chang’s solo lines are gently, sensitively shadowed in various combinations by the secondary rainbow synthesizer--here operated by Andrea Neumann, which imbues the performance with a moderately controlled ambient presence from outside the immediate space that virtually eliminates the walls, letting all of the sounds mix—and Lamb’s viola and Derek Shirley’s cello. When something is removed on a particular pass Lamb refers to its memory as a kind of residue. The secondary rainbow synthesizer adds enticing of variety of elements to the soundscape—cars and trucks passing in the distance, the barking of a dog, inchoate hums and drones, laughter—that sometimes feels like a brilliant binding agent and sometimes the perceptive focus itself when the strings go silent, sometimes for extended passages. Halfway through the piece an appealing beating quality appears, only to fade back into ambient wash—but it returns in different manifestations thanks to interferences with the secondary rainbow synthesizer. The material draws on some of the Torros fragments, but the end result creates a completely different but no less satisfying experience.
The bulk of the New World CD is occupied by "Prisma Interius IX," the final installment in Lamb's series--it's a genuine marvel. The CD package contains illuminating liner notes by Lamb associate Rebecca Lane, and her descriptions go a long way in explaining the composer's goals. This is music for both performers and listeners to be enveloped by. She explains that playing this music requires the performer to listen carefully:
I tune my instrument to a particular frequency and relearn the geography of its tube; I alter the spaces of my body to increase the possibility of precision--the shape of my mouth (formants), the cavity of my nasal passage, the position of my body--all the time being led by my ears. My body learns its state between intervals and my ears remember. When my sound is combined with others (resonating with others), I listen or feel for combination tones, ear tones, beatings, shared partials. Being bound only by the length of my breath, not by metrical time, I have the freedom to observe sound as a phenomenon shared with others within structured form. I surf unisons that appear like thick lines, I visualize vibrating patterns of complex ratios, I hear my sound transforming others and their sound transforming my own. I observe my own listening state, which, in its purest mode, is light and detached and open.
This process allows the music to breathe in the freest way possible, and it explains how simple written material opens up into a vast world of prospects. Eubanks' synthesizer is also employed here, letting ambient sounds to blend in. Dedalus does a remarkable job at bringing the music to fruition, colliding the electric guitar of Didier Aschour, the flutes of Amélie Berson, the viola of Cyprien Busolini, the voice and treble viola da gamba of Guédon, the trombone of Thierry Madiot, the saxophone of Pierre-Stéphane Meugé, the trumpet of Christian Pruvost, the violin of Sylvia Tarozzi, and the cello and voice of Walker to form ever shifting harmonies and timbres. The prism in the title of the series is quite literal in a sense, as the composer created the score with the idea that each musician is dealing with the sound as an object as refracted in a single prism in between the players. Lane, again: "When we look at any object, our eyes continually move around it as we visually comprehend its shapes and surfaces. In the case of a transparent object like a prism, this complex process becomes even more so, since we view some of the exterior edges and surfaces by looking through its interior. Moreover, a prism absorbs the forms and colors of its immediate environment and transforms them through the surface of its body." She relates Lamb's practice the color studies of Josef Albers--a big influence on the composer--that dispatched the sharpness of clear delineation for a more fluid, hazy reality. Lane quotes him: "Choice of the colours used, as well as their order, is aimed at interaction--influencing and changing each other forth and back." You can hear an excerpt from the piece below.
Lamb has long been fascinated by prisms, and she explains how moving a crystal changes ones perspective as one hits upon a new facet of the object. I can't really say how the musicians technically achieve this effect, but I can certainly hear it, and that understanding greatly heightens the beauty and depth of the music. The CD also includes a series of brief pieces from "Overlays Transparent/Opaque." The overlays in the title refers to the degrees of presence an individual musician brings to a particular note sequence, but rather than tracing the shape with the expected soft-loud-soft progression, the performer is asked for "a shift in perception from transparency into opaqueness, where the core of the sound becomes clear, or less clear, to reflect 'the presence of the relational material between instruments.'"
Toward the end of her essay Lane hits upon another key observation, which has helped me grapple with Lamb's wonderfully peculiar sound world--treating this sort of music as unique strain of atmosphere. "Being of the air, sound also has no surfaces and so in this sense can be called an atmosphere, like the weather. It moves in us and around us. But sound or more specifically, tones, can also be the carrier of an atmosphere of feeling. In this sense, musical works, as collective experiences, can generate a home for the emergence of such atmospheres."
Last year I wrote a feature story for the Chicago Reader about Whitney Johnson, a wonderfully agile musician who's been a pillar of the underground scene. She effortlessly traverses the borders between rock, experimental, improvisation, and classical music, complementing her viola playing with an array of keyboards and electronics. The recordings she makes as Matchess have grown increasingly sophisticated and focus, and last year's Sacracorpa (Trouble in Mind) was the best one yet. When we spoke last year she explained a deep engagement with experimental music, which included a stint working at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House in New York. She told me that she intended to push her work in that direction, and that movement is certainly evinced by her latest release, a dazzling digital release Fundamental 256 Hz (Longform Editions)--the title explicitly connects to the fundamental frequency at the core of all of Young's work.
The beguiling 37-minute work is written in just intonation, and is comprised of four nine-minute-fifteen-second sections capturing various states of brain activity, and while it's underlying premise is both more familiar and simple than Lamb's music, it's been occupying a similar space in my mind. Johnson combines hypnotically sawing viola patterns with tuning forks, an Arp Odyssey synthesizer, and an old sine wave oscillator. The first nine minutes are based on beta waves while the body is engaged in conscious activity, and the passage is rich in acoustic beating; the second part adds her viola while tamping down the electronics to simulate alpha wave activity of "waking, alert relaxation and calm." The third part simulates theta wave activity of deep relaxation/meditation or dreamy sleep," and, indeed, the music has dialed down with a warmly pulsing center and electronic tones panning across the soundfield, while the closing section mirrors delta waves of "dreamless sleep:" the music descends closer to inertness, but there is irresistible beating and cycles that only serve to pull the listener in deeper. Johnson has said of this final part, "It was difficult to make the final movement; several times I fell asleep at the mixing board during the transition to the Delta phase!" You can check it out below.