Review of Sti.ll [12k2060]

Freq.Org (UK)

Next up is Taylor Deupree‘s Sti.II, a transcription of an earlier work of his, Stil. And that facile description does a massive disservice. Again, to speak of Platonic ideals — what is the form of the work?

In this case the idea is to realise on acoustic instruments a work that was exclusively digital in its initial form. Is the existing recording the perfect form? When the second work deviates from it, is that deterioration or new qualities, or obviating underlying qualities?

These questions may seem like sophistry (to use another Attic term), but I’d argue that these works have that context. Not all musicians and listeners think like this, but many of us (I live in both camps) get enjoyment out of those kinds of details, out of situating a piece within its context.

So the original (I should ‘originary’) Stil was an earlly ’00s piece. It’d probably be described in terms like ‘minimalist electronica’. It passed me by at the time, which is remiss. It’s a gorgeous record — all slowly shifting pulses like a blurred-focus skipping CD. And thanks to Branciforte’s work in realising Sti.II, I’m going to seek out my own copy. But I’m not here to talk about that.

Sti.II works where it deviates from the original. While the detail of the original is very clearly digital means, Sti.II uses a bunch of extended techniques to realise it. It is imperfect; it’s clearly the same record, but it’s like the other side of a mask or some other inversion — demonstrably the same yet uncannily dissimilar.

And again the book’s strength is to add meat to the bones of a concept. I say ‘extended technique’ and that could mean anything, from using an unusual plectrum to super-difficult Eb clarinet fingerings. You can probably guess why I suggest super-difficult Eb clarinet fingerings. The book goes into exacting detail about how sounds were realised — down to a method to produce a kind of white noise sound from a clarinet by means of lying down and using water.

Personally, I can’t get enough of this detail. It’s surely an act of no small generosity to say to the readers “look, we’re not just alluding to making these sounds — we can show you how too”. Again, I don’t think this make Sti.II repeatable (and why would anyone when Branciforte’s recording is exquisitely tight?) but it does open the door to musicians to expand their pallete. Despite this being by no means ‘mainstream’ music, Grayfade / Folio are the opposite of obscurantism.

And so the book for Sti.II deals in questions of Platonic ideals and how one transcribes things and we arrive at a point where all the differences between source and product are clear. We see how Branciforte’s transcriptions find ways to bring order to complex non-quantised loops, how to impose a kind of grid on the rhythmic understanding of the piece without lending the music a flattened, regular meter. It’s also, arguably, making some complex and tricky musical ideas approachable, or at least conceptually attainable.

There’s a line in one of the books about “…the platonic perfection of a digital fade-out…” [p59] which is an excellent articulation of howSti.II differs from Stil — instruments will crack and distort as you play them more quietly, while a digital fade out will uniformly disappear. What this book isolates, like an overpowered floodlight, is how an acoustic version of an electronic piece is constantly and consistently different. And so the listener is lead into a world of paying close attention to timbral differences, to getting their ear-hands all around the distinct shapes of digital vs acoustic instrumentation.

Also importantly — because of Platonic ideals it’s often the case that the composer is elevated relative to the performers; we know Mozart‘s name but not his soloists’, let alone the third flautist. These books give the instrumentalists time in the sunshine too. The clarinetist on Sti.II, Madison Greenstone, is given space to articulate what she did, how she approached the record. It’s important that we recognise that these things don’t happen without clarinettists like Greenstone figuring out a way to play the clarinet on her back with water on the bell. And also she intuits the Grecian undertones to the books by talking about the ship of Theseus.

This has been quite a long piece so … apologies for that. But fundamentally, these are gorgeously presented items and hugely generous in a way that is atypical, I’d argue, in experimental music. Grayfade deserves many’s the plaudit for these works that point to a culture and a community of breathing, bleeding humans that produces a record, not merely a product in a marketplace of roughly-identical products. Kudos, herr Branciforte.

-Kev Nickells-

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