notation from Charmaine Lee; reviews

Houston, Texas’ Nameless Sound performance series continues celebrating its 20th anniversary by diving into archives of previously unreleased sound, video, and stories from musicians with deep connections to the series. January featured Joe McPhee; February featured Maggie Nichols; March featured Alvin Fielder. The director of Nameless Sound and trombonist, Dave Dove, also recently released a record with cornetist Jawwaad Taylor, A EYES ALWAYS ON YOU, well worth sharing some time with.

I didn’t complete an interview, listicle, or editorial in time for this newsletter, but something from each of these categories is in development.


annotations is a recurring feature sampling graphic or other non-traditional notation with context and a preference for recent work with recorded examples, in the spirit of John Cage & Alison Knowles’ Notations and Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21. As a non-musician illiterate in traditional notation, I believe alternative notation can offer intuitive pathways to enriching interpretations of the sound it symbolizes and, even better, sound in general. For many listeners, music is more often approached through performances and recordings, rather than through compositional practices; these scores might offer additional information, hence the name, annotations. 

Other vital resources exploring alternative notation include Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen’s IM-OS journal and Christopher Williams’ Tactile Paths, each of which reference and link many other resources for this kind of notation. 

All scores copied in this newsletter are done so with permission of the composer for the purpose of this newsletter only, and are not to be further copied without their permission. If you are a composer utilizing non-traditional notation and are interested in featuring your work in this newsletter, please reach out to harmonicseries21@gmail.com for purchasing and permissions; if you know a composer that might be interested, please share this call.

Charmaine Lee - Smoke, Airs

Charmaine Lee explores the entire mechanism of voice and amplified voice, often mic’ing the throat to make audible the origins of the voice and using microphones and amplifiers as instruments in their own right, beyond a distinctive vocabulary of extended vocal technique. Smoke, Airs is a 2017 composition (revised in 2019) for flutes, piano, percussion, tenor sax, violin, and voice, commissioned by Wet Ink Ensemble. Lee’s practice is typically improvised; in composing for others, she communicates the salient translatable characteristics of that personal language in a framework for others to interpret. Perhaps not overly concerned with composing, the notation is a fresh pragmatic blend: traditional symbols for rests and dynamics; commonsense time; alphabetic sequence; embedded textual direction; interpretive doodles. It’s interesting to think about what sounds (and performers) might be best served by conventional symbols or invented ones, traditional communication or plain writing.

I’ve included two performances, with and without Lee, both with Wet Ink Ensemble. The score provides a clear listening map. While following along, I might try to discern the sounding characteristics associated with the many dotted doodlings, and interpret the vertical lines connected to some of them. The ensemble closely follows the dynamic direction during unison sections; a challenge for the close listener might be discerning how the tenor saxophone, percussion, and flute interpret the cluster of dynamic directions in the trios section. 


BONDI-D’INCISE - La lavintse (INSUB records, 2021)

Clara de Asís (guitar), Christoph Schiller (spinet), Marina Tantanozi (flutes), Tassos Tataroglou (trumpet), and ​Mara Winter (medieval flutes) perform simultaneously courtly and crude compositions from Cyril Bondi and d’incise on La lavintse

“La lavintse n°1” is picked strings and sustained winds each cycling through similitudes of pitch, attack, duration of soundings, and duration between soundings, phasing the order of instruments. The silence between soundings is generous but not stressed. The regularity and relaxed speed of soundings lend a feeling of a stately waltz. Uncommon tunings, truncated attacks, and staggered rhythms lend one of quaint rusticism or affected amateurism. Feelings furthered by associations of court and country from medieval flutes and spinet, with which the modern flutes and guitar blend, but also the forlorn heralding of the trumpet. It’s an endless dance, formal but with infinite variations. Indeed, knowing nothing of the composition, I might think the next three tracks are the same, or at least have a similar set of conditions. The fluttering guitar of n°2 or hurdy-gurdy-like bowing on n°4 might emphasize sustained sounding, the brisk spits and air sounds from flutes on n°3 might lean more discrete, and tones, durations, and emerging rhythms shift, but the rough structure remains, and the suspicion is only supported by similar track names and lengths. A kind of organic brute force algorithm for the possible sonorities of this old world quintet. 

Leila Bordreuil - not an elegy (Boomkat Editions, 2021)

Cellist Leila Bordreuil plays two sidelong solo tracks that embody the performance environment on not an elegy

“For Tamio” invokes Tamio Shiraishi, the alto saxophonist with whom Bordreuil now frequently collaborates, heard together on Live at Pageant Soloveev and in various videos from Kevin Reilly’s youtube channel, who is famous for their performances in subway tunnels, where this track is also performed. A few moments at the beginning and end of the track acclimate the ear to the environment, the bustle and chatter of the subway reverberating off its hard cement and ceramic walls, the perpetual rumble and gusty suck of the tunnels. And then Bordreuil shreds and saws, the reverberating multiphonics sometimes building to a swarm of bees. Generally, the volume is loud and the speed is lively but constant variations in tempo, dynamics, attack, pitch, pitch clarity, and sounding duration create a sense of impassioned movement, culminating in some cathartic harmonic beatings around 12’. And then the subway blows by, its deafening whoosh nearly drowning out the cello. Across its various visits, the cello tries to meet it with volume and speed and noise, uses it to mask a transition to another approach, or submits and goes silent, only to shock the ear with a rapid return to its own noise and volume. 

The setting of “Past Continuous” is a much quieter hallway in the cellist’s apartment building, with the cello using a nearby upright piano as a resonator, its pedal suppressed with a brick. Bordreuil leverages the placid environment for quieter drone dynamics, teeming with movement through the shifting polyrhythms of wavering pulses from the low-end throb of the piano, the feint primary sounding of the string, and dancing ethereal overtones. There’s a choral depth and richness to the sound and some moments of exaggerated delay and pitch bending, I’m assuming possible through the piano resonance and pedal, that might suggest electronic effects if not for the explicit caveat that no processing or effects pedals were used for either track. 

Tucker Dulin/Ben Owen - Cat Guarding Geese (Erstwhile Records, 2021)

Using some object soundings and field recordings, Tucker Dulin and Ben Owen make a music of silence on Cat Guarding Geese.

If you’re able to spend some time in a vast wilderness, and find a space with no birds and low wind, your brain might glossily interpret the rare stillness as silence. This is never the case with recorded unsound. Sometimes it manifests as a sucking void, or a hiss, or a white noise. No matter how production tries to strip it bare, it is always there, perceptible as a different space and time than where and when you are now. Some recordings call attention to it, and a keen ear might hear the material, the volume, the heat of a space revealed by moving tongues and streams of its contained fluid diffusing infinitesimal vibrations. This is one of those. Its unsound as unmoving as phosphenes.

It’s arranged from four recordings and, while I imagine there are more cuts and overlays, I hear four marked shifts in recorded silence around 10’, 33’, 42’, and 58,’ with the last ten minutes a return to the recording from the first. Tucker Dulin sounds with bells, bowls, cans, cymbals, lentils, mallets, and whistles. But I don’t get the sense that this is an acousmatic recording focused on the mysteries and joys of sounding (e.g. Hole In My Head), not only because the sources are revealed but because of the regularity of material, attack, and order, maybe even timing and duration. 10’ to 33’ is a somewhat predictable cycle of resonant bowl, electric whine, and sorting lentils. 42’ to 58’ something like a lottery drum then whine then bells or bowl. While I’m sure there’s something to hear in the minutiae of natural variability of performance, it’s as if the spacious, relatively unvaried soundings are framing the more dynamic silence, rather than the usual, other way around. Perhaps it’s telling that Ben Owens lists recording equipment as instruments, rather than “field recordings.” The recorded silence is the meat of the musical material here. By the end, when it’s crowded out by continuous soundings, I want it to return. From its ooze emerges voices, airplanes, cars, back-up beepers, wind, cat purrs, and geese. Only to be consumed again. Less commentary on the human erosion of sonic ecology than something like it was and is always there. Along with imbuing unsound with organic sentience rather than it being a sterile structural tool for instrumental endeavours, the gauche squawk of geese, rather than bright birdsong, feels like a subversion of other musics that leverage silence. 

It seems to have a sister recording in roosevel tape 2015

(There’s an issue with the embed, but here’s the link) https://erstwhilerecords.bandcamp.com/album/cat-guarding-geese

Bertrand Gauguet / John Tilbury - CONTRE-COURBES (AKOUSIS RECORDS, 2021)

Alto saxophonist Bertrand Gauguet and pianist John Tilbury freely improvise two quiet, years-apart sets that explore harmonic communication on CONTRE-COURBES

The first set was recorded in 2016. Saxophone and piano tenderly materialize and dissolve in the silence, which might occupy as much runtime as soundings yet doesn’t feel foregrounded, instead a matter-of-fact condition to hear the harmonic glow and decay of each instrument. Breath, sniffing, and air through the bore might be just as audible as the notes but I can’t hear the keys of either instrument, an indicator of the often gentle treatment of sound. Both alternate freely between fractured, contemplative melodies and less mellifluous extended techniques, the piano favoring the former, the saxophone the latter. Inside-piano scrapings, single notes, and clusters of them are given space to sound fully, the collateral vibrations of neighboring strings a chorus. So too the saxophone, its air notes, raspberries, chirpings, grass-blade-in-knuckles whistles, and some trick with the reed mimicking the chittering of dragonflies seemingly less concerned with the timbral nuances of the primary sounding but rather the residual profile, a swell of discretized spectra at times pulsing and beating. When the volume of the saxophone gets loud - and it gets loud - it is not so much for climactic dynamics but to test the tensile strength of the harmonics. The two instruments don’t appear to favor communicating directly, instead interacting in the overlap of the afterglow of each sounding. 

The second set was recorded in 2019. Though this is the first release of Gauguet and Tilbury together, it’s unclear if the first set was a first meeting. However, this second set sounds more subdued, even less tempestuous and the piano runs wild with extended technique, a kind of couples comfort with silence but, also, boldness. But the strategies are largely unchanged. There’s more inside-piano, high-tension wire play, and Tilbury’s hands are given to tapping, knocking, and palming the frame more than the keys at times. Gauguet forgoes many of the piercing frequencies of the first set for wetter ones, not just raspberries but some more phlegmatic air notes and a kind of hissing spittling too. These extended techniques, very human and less resonant, from each instrument can draw more attention to the performer than the character of the sound, but the fertile valleys of the first set’s sonic hill country still exist here. 

Tine Surel Lange - Works for Listening 1-10 (Sofa, 2021)

Composer and sound artist Tine Surel Lange crafts ten sound environments that envelop the listener on the hourlong Works for Listening 1-10

This is ambient music. Not in the sense to be relegated to the background, but in that it utilizes translated 5th order ambisonics, or a truer surround sound, to better convey the spatiality of sound. If you’re standing on a catwalk in a room, the ear often accurately locates a source of sound whether it is in front, behind, to either side, above, below, or somewhere between these planes. Rather than the single horizontal plane of stereo, sound is three-dimensional, more spherical. Rather than the usual two, one, or four channels that sound is most often recorded and conveyed, 5th order ambisonics uses 36 channels. Like any other data gathering, increased sampling increases the resolution, in this case the spatiality of sound. Of course, this has to be translated to the flattened capabilities of common soundsystems, so some recording artists might choose the additional data points increase the resolution of the horizontal plane rather than the vertical. The specifics of how Lange uses ambisonics are unclear, but it is clear that the listener feels embedded in them and that there’s actually a range of techniques used to accentuate aspects of each sound. 

Hyperaware of experiencing a virtual representation of reality, everything starts to appear liminal. The sources of sound are veiled in the notes, but the sometimes revealing titles appear true. There’s a hammering and wood and metal in the three remixes of “Roof Works,” the unmistakable sound of flowing water and rain in “Metal and Water” and “Water and Stone.” But there’s always acousmatic sounds as well. Their rhythms, especially those in which water is involved, simultaneously naturally stochastic and obviously manipulated. While there are some anonymous swells and drones, these are dense jungles of relatively discrete sounds. Sounds can seem thrown to imitate spatiality, and some seem stretched, fully or at the beginning or middle or end, with heavy delay and smart mixing of volume and accentuating different frequency ranges, each at different points in a single sound. The possibilities of which might illuminate the essence of a sound by putting its components under a microscope but also warping them until everything else blends into another and there’s nothing left but its kernel. Sometimes it begins to register as verticality. Rather than framing sound with silence (I had to check “Metal and Water” was still playing after it used just a little), this is more a study in hearing variation through adjacent tinkerings. Like hopping back and forth between different mirrors in the funhouse. Tripping the perceptions of the ear. 

Charmaine Lee and Zach Rowden - Butterfly Knife (Notice Recordings, 2021)

Vocalist Charmaine Lee and contrabassist Zach Rowden freely play frenetic conglomerations of noise on Butterfly Knife.

For comparative listening of this duo, there’s a live set recorded the same year. Though Butterfly Knife is divided into two tracks over a breezy half hour, there are four distinct sketches within each track, a structure that further accelerates the pacing in a way similar to Lee’s own cut and collage style. That signature style, which might rightly draw comparisons to ASMR, hip hop montages, or the Silent Hill nurses, is in full effect but feels slower than usual, I imagine to better align with the higher gravity of the contrabass. Likewise, while there are feedback squeals, vocal squeeks, and low-end rumblings, each instrument seems to adjust its pitch range to maximize overlap. Beyond speed and pitch, the voice/amplifier system and contrabass communicate not through call-and-response, traditional harmony, or melody and rhythm but density, dynamics, and timbre. And those timbres are where it’s at. Rowden’s arco accentuates the hairy friction of the instrument, strings whinnying, whistling, creaking, cracking, and growling, the bow sawing, flaying. Lee’s voice and microphones squelch and breath, click and pop, purr and cry, blow raspberries and utter syllables. There’s a certain menace in this duo, not just from the maelstrom of noise or the chasmic depths of the bass or the panicked gasps of air amplified at the throat but a half-masked warping of the voice that never belies its human origin no matter how inhuman it appears.

Charmaine Lee - KNVF (Erratum Musical, 2021)

At 11 tracks just over half an hour, the characteristic fever dream of Lee’s performance practice still marks the music, the longevity of tracks truncated by the heightened metabolism of so many sounds and techniques happening so quickly. While an array of microphones and nimble live processing transmogrify the humanity of the voice, it is never not there. And is indeed heightened by its impression of intimacy, a kind of catalogue of the mundane sounds you hear sitting in a room with another person. The squelches, the tongue clicks, a sigh, breathing, snoring, a coo, whistled tunes, murmured thoughts, peeing at the club. Beyond these more human than human moments, and beyond the peculiar middleground of manipulated voice, I hear pure machine. Sachikesque sines, Oval feedback hiss and whistle, white noise static. In illuminating the extremes, the tensioned blend of them is made more emotively powerful. To briefly do Lee a disservice and talk about someone else for a bit, I’ve coincidentally been revisiting Oval recently and thinking about why his crashing modemsong seems so warm to me and other listeners; I’m currently grasping on to the idea that, though the material can be harsh, the movement of sounds often follows a familiar intonation, almost like the cadence of the human voice. While the sound at 3:12 on “Monstas’ Marriage” sparked this association, I hear it throughout KNVF, even when the voice is absent. So not only has Lee transformed the human voice into a sound bite machine, but the machine into something beginning to resemble the human voice. On a more practical note, I notice that the longer tracks, or those approaching five minutes, lean more heavily on pure electronic noise, as does the recently premiered Papillae and perhaps the longer cuts within Butterfly Knife. Alleviating the physical fatigue from these oral acrobatics naturally extends the possible playtime. Like technology extends the life expectancy of the humans that create it. Some kind of symbiotic relationship between the human voice and technology has existed since at least a megaphone or microphone was needed to fill a room. It finally feels like it’s beginning to be explored to the nth degree in the work of Charmaine Lee. 

John McCowen - Robeson Formants (SUPERPANG, 2021)

John McCowen’s Robeson Formants for contrabass clarinet and sine tones is a single quarter-hour track of deep, rich, sub-bass drone brimming with multiphonics.

The title indicates a kind of homage to singer Paul Robeson, whose deep, rich bass-baritone could cause goosebumps with its intense low-end lyricism, to say nothing of the often stirring words themselves. Indeed, the sounds stem from “day dreaming about what a spectrograph of him humming would have looked like.” From the beginning, a whispering shear of air through the bore begets a didgeridesque longform low-end thrum, each present to the end. Joined by a rattling undulation, its line sometimes fully-traced, sometimes dotted. And a higher-pitched, higher-frequency siren whose consistency indicates a generated sine tone. These latter two partners disappear to allow the entrance of a chorus of waves with great clarity, blurred sources, and organic arrhythmias. The many pulsing lines of the multiphonic polyrhythm are understated, more wondrous than baffling. The textures are relatively smooth, closer to McCowen’s Mundanas than the noisier leanings of Solo Contra. Engaging yet calming, maybe like listening to Paul Robeson humming. 

Patrick Shiroishi - Resting In the Heart of Green Shade (Tripticks Tapes, 2021)

Multi-instrumentalist Patrick Shiroshi plays four saxophone solos for soprano, alto, and tenor that juxtapose melody and cacophony on the set-length Resting In the Heart of Green Shade

It seems to occupy a special place in Shiroishi’s several solo recordings, stripped of effects, objects, and other instruments but retaining a range of saxophones, focused but expansive, though the baritone of several earlier recordings is absent. The nebulous personalities of each saxophone seem caricatured: the high-pitched screeching chirpings and breakneck multiphonic wiggles of the soprano; the plodding muscularity of tenor overblows and honks, the beginning of “Paper Mountain” accentuating it with comparatively long silences; the triadic spirals and test tone squeals of the alto - “The Very Heart of Things” might even contain a dismantled nod to “Lonely Woman.” But each approach illuminates the person behind the saxophones, with wheezing or quivering breaths sometimes dynamic equals to melodic lines, frequent air notes, aerobic flights that are as characterized by their unsounding and key clicks as their blown tones, and vocalizing-while-playing multiphonics. I wonder if this volatile relationship between instrumentalist and instrument is related to the stormy clash of noise and melody, or some pure sounding and those from some tradition. Whatever the intent, these are passionate pieces, made more so not just by the intimate solo setting but leveraging it to embody the physicality of the musician in the music.

I haven’t yet been able to spend time with it, but Patrick Shiroishi has since released i shouldn’t have to worry when my parents go outside, dedicated to Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Yong Ae Yue, and Paul Andre Michels, proceeds from which will go to their families through the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

TAK Ensemble & Taylor Brook - Star Maker Fragments (TAK Editions, 2021)

Composer Taylor Brook joins experimental chamber quintet TAK Ensemble to perform Star Maker Fragments, which sets spoken excerpts of Olaf Stapledon’s science-fiction novel Star Maker in a substrate of alien tonalities. 

This is the second recording documenting a close working relationship between the composer and ensemble, after Ecstatic Music. While vocalist Charlotte Mundy’s angelic “aahs” are as memorable as the text and while it seems great care is taken to balance the music and words, dynamically and without sacrificing sonic complexity to center the voice, an innate bias in the brain draws the ear to the spoken narrative, on which the voice spends the most time. The fine articulation and spirited emotivity of the recitation make it even more engaging. While I’m unfamiliar with the novel, the curation of excerpts is interesting. There’s the earthly anchor, from which we begin and to which we return, a common science-fiction mechanism reminding experiencers that the bizarre journey is not so dissimilar to our familiar one, our oddest imaginings a reflection of ourselves, like the strange jellied sheen of mirrored fruit on the cover. The narrative spends most time among an extraterrestrial dystopian society with overdeveloped taste and smell and systemic racial and labor exploitation that will feel familiar to most of our world, theirs devolving into a kind of Matrix battery situation. This gustatory primacy is directly contrasted with an underdeveloped ear and, while the explicit message is always powerful and timely, I wonder if the chosen text also provides commentary on the state of music in consumerist society, where product and aesthetic taste might supercede actually engaging with sound. An interpretation perhaps reinforced when the narrator embarks on this journey after having “tasted bitterness,” associating the word with knowledge rather than the senses from the start. We are then transported to the society of stars, in their elegant deterministic dance, formal, orderly, well-mannered, but lifeless in all senses except the imagined anthropomorphic behaviors draped over them. And we are transported to societies of sound, with tonal patterns occupying pitch dimensions and moving via timbre and volume, a kind of anarchy of waves constantly consuming and changing each other. It strikes me that these passages were chosen to portray the composer’s choice, in which the queerness of sound, which always is and is always infinite - beyond perception, must be corralled into some form. Lest these two unsatisfactory extremes be our existence. Upon returning to Earth, the narrator experiences a renewed engagement with the messy human struggle, awkwardly denouncing art as a distraction from it, “a mockery and mere self-indulgence in the face of calamity.” Of course, Stapledon wrote the book and Brook wrote this. Thumbing their nose at this idea by demonstrating the power of stories - in songs, words, images, and the rest - as a kind of morality tale, nudging the directions of society. Beyond my previous interpretations, the curation of excerpts suggests balance, sensuality, and diversity - not just the taste and smell of the dystopia, the light of the stars, the hearing of musical universes - as necessary aspects of a thriving community.

Accompanying the voice are flutes, clarinets, violin, percussion, and electronics. Their music does swell to fill the spaces between the voice. And might mimic its cadence or engage in a kind of call and response. But it is just as much an independent, organic ecology developing alongside the text. Each section of excerpts has an apparent theme - the flute fluttering of Earth, the violin’s taffy modulations on People of the Other World, the black lodge backward ominous sultriness from the clarinet during Taste of God, the guitar of the stars - except perhaps the comparative chaos of the musical universes. It flirts with the familiar, grandiose sci-fi sound as much as it does truly alien movements. Always passionate and emotive, rather than cold or academic. With a rhythmic propulsion co-established with the voice.

There is a ten-minute postlude without words. A seemingly tighter dynamic range. Subtler themes, subtler solos. A dense cosmic soup that I’m unsure how to interpret in relation to the textual piece. 

TAK Ensemble on this recording is: Laura Cocks (flutes); Madison Greenstone (clarinets); Marina Kifferstein (violin); Charlotte Mundy (voice); and Ellery Trafford (percussion). 

Thank you so much for reading harmonic series. If you appreciate the music and the words about it in this newsletter, consider sharing it as a method to advocate for the music and the people that make it possible. harmonic series will always be free and accessible without a sign-up or sign-in but, if you appreciate the efforts of the newsletter specifically, consider donating; donations offset the cost of the newsletter, determine stability and growth, and, in the event it becomes a collaborative effort, will be used to provide contributors a respectable fee. As always, readers are encouraged to reach out about anything at all, even just chatting about music, to harmonicseries21@gmail.com.


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