Among the multitude of underground micro-genres that have grown like bacilli these past few years, one of the most refined is ‘Modern Classical’. Ostensibly, much of the music that is sold under this pretext is a kind of evolved ambience, with compositional pretensions: a tidy hybrid of Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno and Erik Satie that is almost invariably pleasant, but which often seems to affect substance without actually delivering it.
Like virtually every genre, of course, genuinely fine music does slip into the category, such as recent work by Tim Hecker and a duo who have lumbered themselves with the unwieldy name of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. This past month, I’ve also been listening a lot to a concert called “Remembering September 11”, available at www.npr.org. The concert was held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art on September 11, and featured an ensemble called the Wordless Music Orchestra playing music that in some way captured a sense of mourning and remembrance deemed suitable for the occasion.
It’s a compelling performance, which reaches a long and striking climax with an orchestral setting of the first of William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops”. Basinski is a New York musician who rediscovered some of his old analogue tapes from the 1980s. As he transferred these haunting loops to digital, the tapes began to actually disintegrate, so that the music gradually became staticky, distorted, eventually silent.
Basinski, legend has it, was playing them back on his rooftop on September 11, 2001, so that the graceful and sombre pieces inadvertently became threnodies for the horrifying spectacle unfolding on the skyline. He subsequently released the loops on four CDs (my personal favourite is “Volume Three”), and their dignified beauty transfers surprisingly well to an orchestral setting. The emotional gravity of the concert is palpable, too, so much so that one wonders how much your response is to the music, or to the context.
But then perhaps conceptual abstract music thrives on context. Last month, our Beach Boys-inspired free CD featured an interpretation of “Don’t Cry (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” by the Viennese musician, Christian Fennesz. In Fennesz’s minimal, glitchy reading, little of the Brian Wilson original is identifiable, but the feel of the song – the mix of sun-dappled haziness and almost-grown melancholia – is perfectly recreated.
Fennesz has spent a long time working in mildly forbidding noise zones, but his speciality – from 2001’s “Endless Summer” album to his newish “Seven Stars” EP – is a sort of music that we could tentatively describe as romantic avant-garde.
Last month, he played a concert in London’s Union Chapel, supporting Emeralds, that brought much of this into focus. As usual, Fennesz mixed digital processing with live electric guitar, to a point where the two collapsed into one another, though on this occasion some of the guitar textures were fractionally more abrasive. The show was part of a season called Transcender, which juxtaposed experimental jams with, say, Sufi devotional performances, as a way of locating the ecstatic in a wide range of different musics.
It worked, too. Listening to a passage of Fennesz’s music in isolation, it would be easy to dismiss it as frictional, cacophonous. Here, though, beneath the sepulchral arches of the church, its pastoral and transcendent potential came effortlessly to the fore. Once again, I guess, context is everything.