Basic Exploration: An Interview With Apartment House

Apartment House leader Anton Lukoszieveze discusses 30 years of combining intricate compositions with a straightforward approach, the band’s performance of Nico’s The Marble Index at this month’s Bristol New Music, and the importance of beekeeping

Photo courtesy of Anton Lukoszevieze

When the British-Lithuanian performer, band leader, and composer Anton Lukoszevieze founded Apartment House in 1995, he did so with the intention of being able to play any music he liked, unburdened by expectations and obligations. Thirty years later, not much has changed. “The very first Apartment House gig had [music written by] John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Chris Newman. One of the more recent concerts had [those composers too], so those things don’t change. But then, along come different composers. I discover other things,” he explains. “It’s still just open exploration. It’s as simple as that.

“I don’t follow any fashions,” he continues. “I’m interested in what the sound of something is like. It’s really very basic.” When discussing his enduring enthusiasm for his work and for curating Apartment House’s performances, Lukoszevieze speaks with conviction and directness, a rare and welcome commodity in a musical environment sometimes plagued by deliberate mystification. “I think that’s what we all want. You know, that feeling when you put your headphones on, you touch the needle on the vinyl, and you feel good.”

Simplicity is one of the core tenets of Lukoszevieve’s work, and yet, his ensemble also embraces intricacy, often incorporating concepts from other forms of art that seep into his thought process. “I’m also a visual artist, and work a lot with different media like photography,” he says. “Some of the programmes with Apartment House are a bit like walking into a contemporary art gallery. You’ll go into one room, and there might be five paintings by somebody you’ve never heard of. And you’ll think, ‘Oh, God, these are pretty good.’ Then you walk into another room and there’s something completely different. I like this combination of things to explore.”

In line with this philosophy, Apartment House has spent its existence pursuing, commissioning, and sometimes unearthing sublime compositions in a field that can be vaguely called experimental classical music. As well as playing the works of seminal composers such as the aforementioned Cage and Wolff, their sets have often featured neglected pieces from the important but seldom-performed oeuvres of Iannis Xenakis and Morton Feldman, and works from the younger generation of composers or lesser known artists like Paul Paccione.

The roster of musicians who are, or have been, members of the ensemble is as impressive and as varied as the music they have performed. Harpist Rhodri Davies and violinist Angharad Davies, vocalist Jennifer Walshe, violinist Alison Blunt, and pianist Philip Thomas are just some of the many remarkable players who have passed through the group, many of them established composers and improvisers in their own right. Lukoszevieze speaks of them with warmth, making sure to underscore their importance before discussing anything else. “I’m very lucky in that I have a wonderful group of musicians,” he says. “It’s really only keeping going because I’m very blessed.” As far as the programming is concerned, however, things are a bit more old fashioned. “I’m a complete dictator, I choose all the programmes myself,” he quips.

To better understand the open-minded methods and breadth of Apartment House’s repertoire, one needs to look no further than the eclectic schedule of their current run of performances. Later this month, they perform pieces old and new by a variety of composers from the US, UK, Slovakia, Lithuania, Croatia, Iceland and France during a three-day residency at Wigmore Hall, while a week before Lukoszevieze and I connect via Zoom at the end of March, Apartment House played a fiery set with noise improvisor extraordinaire Keiji Haino at the church of St John On Bethnal Green. “I met Keiji Haino about, must be nearly 20 years ago, when I was playing with Zeitkratzer, I think we did several concerts with him,” Lukoszevieze reveals. “Cafe OTO’s Fielding Hope told me that Keiji wanted Apartment House to play some of the music we normally play, but also he wanted us to play some more classical pieces. He wanted something by Bach, so I chose the very first contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue.” Their set would also include music by Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, John Dowland, Yoko Ono, and Orlando Gibbons – chosen by Lukoszevieze – and George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and Lewis Allan’s ‘Strange Fruit’ – chosen by Haino.

On the surface, the Japanese musician’s wild, unpredictable improvisations might appear difficult to reconcile with the ensemble’s meticulous approach, but the set thrived on that juxtaposition. “He wanted us to play these pieces in order for him to improvise in and around and react to them. So it was very much a symbiotic sort of process. And he didn’t just play the guitar. He was singing, he was playing some drums and cymbals,” Lukoszevieze explains. As with most things, his view on the performance is uncomplicated. “It was very much a kind of coming together, really. He’s a great musician, and it’s actually very easy to work with him. He’s very musical. And so I was really happy with it. There’s no great mystery about it.”

This, in turn, stands in contrast to Apartment House’s studious approach to the performance with which they’ll round out the month – a unique rendition of Nico and John Cale’s The Marble Index with vocalist Francesca Fargion, newly transcribed by the composer Kerry Yong for string quartet and keyboards, at the Bristol New Music festival. Performing the 1968 LP alongside music by Jim O’Rourke and Arthur Russell on the same night might seem haphazard at first glance, but as ever Apartment House’s brilliance lies in finding a common thread, a shared sensibility in all these expressions.

Listening to a recording made at the piece’s premiere at Cafe OTO last September reveals both the group’s respect and love for the original material, and the subtle ways in which they ingrain their unique flair into the music. It’s Fargion who leaves a particularly intense impression here. Instead of embarking on the potentially futile undertaking of mimicking Nico’s inflection and tone, she makes the lines her own. She leans into them with a flowing, silky smooth singsong, and an understated virtuosity reminiscent of Renaissance’s Annie Haslam, leading the ensemble behind her in a rendition that’s both intriguing and lovely.

Photo by Alicja Wróblewska

“I didn’t want to try and exactly replicate the album, even though we do play all of it. What we do is very close to the original music, but there’s enough room for our own input. There’s no cello on the original album, but it’s so cleverly worked out by Kerry that I think it really is very faithful to the original,” Lukoszevieze elaborates. “And I didn’t want any attempt at all to replicate the voice of Nico, who had a very distinctive Germanic voice. So I chose Francesca because I knew that she would bring her own voice to it. I think sometimes it needs that [approach], for a work to breathe again and be more fluid in different ways. You still have the original lyrics and the original melodies, so you’re not losing anything.”

Today, another important factor for both Lukoszevieze and Apartment House is their connection with Simon Reynell’s label Another Timbre. The relationship, which started with the release of Laurence Crane’s Chamber Works 1992–2009 in 2014 on which Apartment House played, has seen the ensemble release dozens of records for the imprint. “At the beginning, Another Timbre was very much about improvised music, but then [Reynell] became more and more interested in experimental music and composed music. So we started recording Morton Feldman, John Cage, and younger composers. These things are like symbiosis. You feed from things and you take things and you work on things. It’s a very organic process.”

So far, this year has seen four new Apartment House albums released on Another Timbre, featuring music by Italy’s Marco Baldini, US based Paul Paccione and Nomi Epstein, and UK’s Paul Newland. Marco Baldini’s expansive, slowly pulsing works for strings on Maniera, Nomi Epstein’s unnerving, minimalist chamber cuts on Shades, Paul Newland’s joyous solo piano piece and nocturnal trios on Things That Happen Again, and the expansive textures of Paul Paccione’s early works collected as Distant Musics, each of which is rendered exquisitely by the ensemble, further proving the idiosyncratic versatility that enables them to remain true to the composer’s intentions while leaving a recognisable signature on each performance.

“Don’t expect people to enjoy or like what you do. Have something else you can turn to, like beekeeping or knitting. It is much better in the long term,” Lukoszevieze wrote in a 2019 essay ‘The Great Unlearning’ for The Wire. Today, he says he stands by it, and yet Apartment House shows no signs of stopping. “I keep telling everyone I’m going to retire, which is nonsense, of course. But retire from what or to what?” he says. “No, I’m just going to keep doing it. There’re a lot of things I want to do. We’ve got more recordings we’re doing already. I’m working on my own work and I still enjoy doing concerts. But beekeeping is cool. My friend has bees. It’s brilliant.”

Apartment House will play Nico’s The Marble Index, Jim O’Rourke’s 12 Dollars Is A Lot, and selections from Arthur Russell’s Tower Of Meaning at this year’s Bristol New Music festival on 27 April.

To get tickets for their performance click here, and for the full line-up of this year’s festival, which takes place between 25 and 28 April, and more information, click here.

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