Ascending, descending, slowly, forever. Alice, in a rabbit hole that’s more like a deep well, tumbling so slowly that she’s not sure whether she’s falling or the rabbit hole is moving. Listening to this recording by Wandelweiser affiliate Johnny Chang has a similar effect on my brain, although Lewis Carroll’s Victorian surrealism is replaced by a kind of lean, abstract modernism. A prepatory study for a work by Peter Ablinger, Chang multi-tracks his single violin into a massed, perpetual glissando. One violin becomes 16, but it could be a hundred, such is the gleaming, dissonant thickness of the sound, seamlessly edited so there’s no way of telling where one ends and another begins, like some Glenn Branca massed guitar jam reimagined in viscous, liquid silver.
A note on the CD explains that the final piece used just seven violins, and I guess there’s a sense in which this recording doesn’t quite have the feel of a fully realised work. But it’s still engrossing in its own way. The tough, metallic carapace that Chang creates is pretty imposing, pretty un-violin-like in actual fact and more like some antique modular synth criss-crossed with bowed or scraped cymbal. That glissando is a defining feature, obviously, and it adds a sense of perpetual movement, although the texture is so smooth, it’s a surface that’s impossible to get any grip on. Alice’s rabbit hole teleported to a Manga universe, her posture frozen like an action hero as the backdrop flashes in blurred motion behind her.
The durational element of Chang’s investigation – it’s about an hour long – also adds to the disorientation, which marks this out from other recordings of a similar style that have come across my desk recently, Machinefabriek’s Deining perhaps, or Steve Flato’s Exhaust System. Those pieces are satisfying enough, the Flato especially, but Chang makes us listeners work harder than either of those two. At around 15 minutes, the Machinefabriek piece is pretty concise, and although a falling sensation is a feature of listening to that recording too, it’s a relatively brief experience and nothing like the otherworldliness that Chang’s study emanates. Flato’s piece is different again, with a more involved process (it’s not really glissando either), and a greater use of rhythm means we never quite lose our bearings. In Chang and Ablinger’s world, we’re on our own. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Finally, a note on Peter Ablinger: I know next to nothing of this composer’s work, although, given my general level of ignorance about pretty much everything, that’s not surprising. This study could be an interesting entry point, I guess, with the caveat that I have no idea whether it is representative or not. If you fancy a bit more context than I can give, there’s quite a nice piece about him here , which opens up some further routes of thinking and discovery. Onwards, and upwards. Or was it downwards?