Contrast composition and improvisation: the structuralism of the former, each sound or gesture making sense only in relation to an overarching design, and the quicksilver, intuitive free-flow of the latter. While the improvisor’s mind is always alert to repercussions of the moment, keenly intuiting and filtering possibilities, the interpreter of composed material must disregard such impulses and focus on the weight of significance in incidences and correspondences that are, to a greater or lesser extent, predetermined.
But some works, and some ensembles, blur the boundaries. Witness Fonogramatika, a collection of short, aleatoric but remarkably transparent solo, duo and trio pieces that require both analytical insight and spontaneous expressivity.
Apartment House are leading exponents of European avant-garde/experimental music. Their website glosses Lithuanian composer Antanas Rekašius (1928-2003) as “radical and forgotten”. HIs recorded works were previously limited to handful of LPs issued between 1968 and 1983 on USSR state label Мелодия (Melodiya/Melody). The last of them, Simfoninė Muzika, presented three pieces for symphony orchestra plus drums, electric cello, and Argo, a Lithuanian electronic music group.
Apartment House’s Anton Lukoszevieze rightly describes Rekašius’ style as gestural, “painterly” and “calligraphic”, and his scores as “exhort(ing) the performers to experiment with sound production.” He goes on to describe Rekašius “etching the curvature of sounds and exploding harmonic sonorities (with) instant potential for marking the mind’s eye.” György Kurtág’s Játékok (Games) might be one touchstone; Anthony Braxton’s music of the 70s – his Arista years – another.
Fonogramatika presents a similar mix to Simfoninė Muzika: three chamber suites, “Epitaph”, “Phonogram” and “Musica dolente e con brio”, all composed in 1980 for a trio of woodwind instruments, percussion and cello; the “Atonic” opus for solo piano (1970); and one piece for cello and synthesizer, “Fluorescences” (1981).
“Epitaph” and “Phonogram” are both suites of five pieces, almost all under two minutes long. Most could pass for studied improvisations, thanks particularly to the interplay of percussion and saxophone, except that unit structures obviate improvisational development, and Lukoszevieze’s cello parts cleave to the harmonic and melodic ‘feel’ of chamber music. “Epitaph IV″ has a cello head striking enough to form the basis of a much longer piece, but it’s played sparingly, and reprised on “Epitaph V” only after more visceral dynamics have been explored.
There’s an emotional intensity, in particular, to Frank Gratkowski’s saxophone playing, which is characteristically mournful, almost Ayleresque in places. And that’s not surprising, since as well as holding tenures in both Apartment House and Zeitkratzer, Gratkowski leads a quartet with Dieter Manderscheid, Gerry Hemingway and Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos, and has maintained a longstanding partnership with pianist Georg Graewe, besides many other projects. The improvisational acumen he and the other musicians bring to these recordings really brings Rekašius’ music to life.
The twelve “Atonic” piano pieces alternate with the trios in blocks of four, all played by Philip Thomas, a champion of John Cage and Christian Wolff, with un-Cage-like boldness, songlike vivacity and, occasionally (cf. “Atonic XI”), a piquancy and perspicacity akin to Satie’s Gymnopédies.
“Fluorescences” for cello and synthesizer (originally organ) is atypically long at ten minutes, and feels atypically orchestrated. The cello’s viscous tone colours initially meld with shifting synth harmonics, but Lukoszevieze bows with increasingly stringency against deep-bore pipe organ tonalities, which ultimately flower into tone clusters.
The sequencing of the pieces is spot-on, with “Fluorescences” bookended by piano pieces two thirds of the way in diluting any sense of formula or dichotomy, and it’s an eminently listenable and beautifully presented set.
Although these works were composed in the 1980s, Rekašius’ time has surely come. Ensembles such as Apartment House thrive on works like these, which exploit an exploded or fragmented orchestral palate with non-standard instrumentation, and demand extra-idiomatic interpretations.
“Epitaph” & “Phonogram”: Frank Gratkowski saxophone (also flute & clarinet on “Phonogram”), Simon Limbrick percussion, Anton Lukoszevieze cello.
“Atonic”: Philip Thomas piano.
“Fluorescences”: Anton Lukoszevieze cello, Kerry Yong synthesizer.
“Musica dolente e con brio”: Frank Gratkowski saxophone, Simon Limbrick percussion, Anton Lukoszevieze cello.
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