(Excuse the length of the review. Summary: Buy it.)
As in his short piece Klangfarbenprobe for the Re Records quarterly many years ago, John here explores in two 30 minute pieces how much variety and structure is obtainable from a single pitch. Western ears are indoctrinated to listen through pitch, to find binding narratives in melody, harmony and their variations, the rest at best is secondary, at worst just colour. The reason so much Baroque music translates so easily to different instruments, including heavy metal guitar, is because it’s the notes that really count. The notes and their ratios and their relationships. Harmony was considered part of a scared mathematics and the relations between pitches expressed absolute, fundamental cosmic realities. Pure music, the music of the spheres related directly to the Platonic forms, the unchanging verities that we can approach but never grasp. That’s why it is the form that matters, the pattern behind the notes, and not the temporary body in which these are clothed. In the age of the Manufacturer and the Usurer - the age of Beethoven and after - while holding to the spiritual in theory, music was progressively seduced by the material. Orchestration came to matter more and more. And once sound recording was invented, the materiality of sound itself became an unegotiable fact. Varese, pre-eminently, relegated notes to a secondary position in his work, pursuing timbre, dynamic, mass, spatiality and contrast, but generally, all the way through to the late 1950s, especially under the sway of post serialism, notes continued to hold their own, even though their grip was slipping. That decade, however, saw two radical responses that recognised and between them reified the dilemma: In the left corner, John Cage shifted his attention to rhythm - which is the organisation of time and which, significantly, is made equally of sound and silence - for him pitch was just material to be poured into structured time; it could be anything - let the sounds be themselves; while, for La Monte Young, in the right corner, pitch became absolutely supreme. John Oswald follows neither route but approaches the problem from a completely different perspective. His work, initially closer to Schönberg’s famous short orchestra piece and Varese’s explorations into dynamic, timbre and spatiality goes beyond these to an exploration of what happens when pitch becomes informationally redundant - or transparent - forcing other qualities of sound to be heard through it, and making thereby what is always missing or suppressed significant. By this simple device - the most original things are always this obvious and one wonders how come it took so long to reach them - the answer is, as always, that it takes a different kind of thinking to see the obvious. By this simple device of removing tonal data by levelling it, John is able to accentuate and make essential parts of hearing we take for granted and, when in art mode, largely ignore. He takes acoustic space, natural and un-natural sound, the outside world and the discourse of music - and by merging and flattening them arrives at strikingly unfamiliar listening aesthetic.
Of course, John’s work with recordings has always been about listening - as well as to a certain extent about perspective, and both concerns are strongly represented here. His method of work involves gradually tuning every sound to a single pitch (an A). There are 10 audible octaves and so 10 degrees of this pitch with which to work. Two human performers are featured, a piano tuner and a cellist, the rest of the material is derived from a library of recorded sounds built up over time - pure sine tones, orchestral instruments playing A’s, voices, environmental sounds: birds, weather, animals, insects, spaces - and so on. It is all - naturally or un-naturally - pitched to an A. This is the material. The second crucial technique employed throughout this piece is morphing: that is, gradually blending one thing into another. A note becomes a storm becomes a flock of birds - think of some of Trevor Wishart’s extraordinary work in this area, except that here the pitch is uniform and the blend can, if desired, be almost imperceptible. A change of object or event becomes simply one of timbres and detail; to morph is effectively to crossfade very slowly. Sounds may gradually turn into one another, or be sunk inside one another like harmonics, to create shifting banks of timbres. An entire aviary of birds winds up at A and A becomes the aether in which they, and everything else, moves.
Because of the variety of sources and the individual recording of them, spatiality moves to the fore; there is much work here with soundscape, interior and exteriority, distance and shape. Such work with scale and reflection and with the sounds of weather and nature inevitably invokes a visual response, and John often speaks in narrative and visual terms in his interview, “it’s raining in the piano,” “a conical clarinet curls into a french horn and then straightens out into a didgeridoo,” “like a giant hummingbird” &c. But because the pitch is constant, our hearing is focused in an entirely unfamiliar way. He quotes Stockhausen’s comparison between the filmic model of seeing a variety of things under a constant light as opposed to seeing the same thing continually under differing lights. Perspective, space and scale permeate this work, in a way I can not refer to any other work. In one section all 88 notes of the piano sound as an A. And how are we to hear this? John in his excellent and comprehensive accompanying interview points out that this could usefully be described as a shift in scale: the piano notes do not change, but the size of the piano does; the lowest note on the keyboard sounding the A would be strung in a 10-inch concert grand, the highest in one over 100 feet long. This is in some ways analogous to the effect of light speeds on length and time: the light is moving at a constant speed while objects shrink and elongate and time stretches and expands.
There are two versions of the piece on this CD, which is an indispensable work. Not merely a piece of music - or a parade of organised sounds - but a meditation on listening.