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Ensemble neoN
Niblock / Lamb Aaron Skates , October 9th, 2019 06:11

Two composers exploring the outer reaches of microtonality played with consummate virtuosity by Oslo's Ensemble neoN, finds Aaron Skates

A good amount of contemporary microtonal classical music might be described as eerie. If the eerie, as Mark Fisher sees it, is about experiencing the absence of something familiar, then it is the absence of regular western temperament that takes centre focus in these compositions.

Take Ensemble neoN’s Niblock / Lamb as the perfect example: a performance of two pieces by American composers Phill Niblock and Catherine Lamb, written in the same decade by two people at very different stages in their lives. Each track requires you to live in it differently, but live in it you must as it slowly, always slowly, generates a range of uncertain emotions.

First track, Niblock’s ‘Between Two Tea Roses’, is unrelenting, a whorl of microtonal textures that neglects holistic compositional dynamics: it is an onslaught of tones, loud and intense, like being confronted with a page filled with repeated capital letters but being forced to read all of them individually. It freaks me out. Niblock’s story of his composer-ly epiphany – when driving past a truck on his motorbike, he heard the two frequencies oscillate so wildly that he almost drove off the cliff – feels similarly immense but also somehow kind of false, kind of isolating: tell people you hear things in traffic and see who believes you.

When I hear something drop onto a hard floor at 8:58 – a piece of rosin, a slice of sheet music falling on its hard side – I can take a deep breath: there are, miraculously, real human hands at work. Even then, there is something almost masochistic about the playing that creates this record. Ensemble neoN’s pianist, Heloisa Amaral explains that the concentration required to play this same movement for twenty-three minutes can provide a “physical discomfort”. “You feel it the day after”, she equivocally explains. There is something very eerie about hearing these musicians push themselves to the limit and efface themselves in the process. But I like the fact that any virtuosity achieved here is the result of total collectivity.

With Catherine Lamb’s piece ‘Parallaxis Forma’, I experience what microtonality can achieve more profoundly; it makes an excellent companion for the Niblock by exploring some more subtle shades of the eerie. Elsewhere Lamb has stated that she follows “the philosophy that the most intense sound is not the most intensive”. Alternative intensities are achieved here. Often, just as my mind has begun wandering, forgetting where I am sitting and listening, the piece just stops, it walks out of the room: for a moment we are in the empty landscape, taking a look around. This effect occurs directly in the middle of movements without capitulation, it tests the listener.

Notes on the score ask the players to intonate with a ‘spectral’ softness. This is an extremely fitting word. I feel like I am undergoing a visitation: a vocal duet drifts in from a strange zone. But this visitor is benign: “the more the tones are played in a plain and relaxed manner with room to blossom, the more expressive and generative they might become”, says Lamb. I agree, the piece is more generous than the A-side here; I don’t have to work as hard to start feeling rather than thinking.