As a student of Jürg Frey, Jack Callahan follows the maestro’s paraphrased maxim “the artist’s hand is very light” in both his compositional work and as director of Bánh Mì Verlag, his exceedingly important music label that accurately and beautifully traces our millennial compositional meltdown. This ethos wavers diabolically and diligently in his works under the moniker die Reihe, named after Stockhausen’s mid-century composition journal published between 1955 and 1962 devoted to contemporary music. Across its print run, the publication basically asserted “technology was becoming an important element in the work of younger composers,” a description that carries the spirit of comedy in Callahan’s context. In full understanding of the amusement of the compromising, mediating tension between composition and technology — a tension that exaggerates composers’ already complicated relationship to the technology of instruments — Callahan does well to curate new contexts for our technological-compositional catastrophe.
For example, his recent NNA release “Housed” saw the composer assuming the role of “Organizer” by listing an 850+ sample segment of his archive of extracted house chords, presenting the sounds raw and as-is (first randomly, then from shortest to longest). Similarly, his web-studio work for net studio EBM(T) generated and organized pitch and rhythmic data from a Gchat conversation. The conceptual agenda of his solo projects are implicitly threaded into Bánh Mì Verlag, a curation that values the elementary non-extravagence of sound, a general materialism of the audio file or the audio inputs in a performance, and the precise execution of a compositional approach or technique. These values were seen concisely in Bánh Mì Verlag’s previous split LP between Michael Pisaro and Matthew Sullivan: the loose tension that occurred between Pisaro’s regimented “Add Red” and Sullivan’s “Meaning, Figueroa,” a bird-and-bells inflected work.
Banh Mi Verlag’s newest split LP has two new works: Luke Moldof’s “KIKI & KIKI,” a terrifying field recording of two parrots both named KIKI with minimal intervention on the composer’s behalf; and Peter Ablinger’s “22 Kanons für Peter Lackner” for six pianos, a series of canons in which each pianist listens to his or her own click track and plays the same material at different tempi. In Callahan’s words, “both pieces are exercises in the use of minimal material to achieve maximal results.” Moldof was former label head of noise imprint Razors & Medicine; Paul Ablinger is an Austrian composer and Wandelweiser associate.
Moldof’s work is a striking document of how the meta-technology of the recording apparatus becomes a compositional instrument registering the musical horror of bird-on-bird interaction, repetition, and human-and-bird coexistence in a domestic circumstance. Doubly heinous by both birds being named KIKI, the recording of the birds is situated in the net-classical ZOOM recorder entanglement of bass-heavy cars passing and quotidian room sounds. The birds, sitting in a room, take on a peculiar and chilling locution, as the sounds of wings fluttering and shrill calls pierce in the reflections of the fiendish bird call in the placid recording space, a damp lampooning of Lucier’s classical “Bird and Person Dyning.” As a non-bird owner, this piece terrifies and fascinates me. It carries with it a kind of Donna Harraway-esque impression that documents the inherent communication breakdown of the parrots’ replication of human voice, and our loving and terrifying mimesis back onto the pet.
Ablinger’s piece is a warping of the canon (Kanon), or the contrapuntal compositional technique that employs a melody with one or more limitations of the melody played after a given duration (think “Frère Jacques”). Here, there’s an almost filmic staging of the melodies that are of entirely independent duration both in their introduction sequentially and in between the notes played, given the pianos’ various tempi. There are six pianos. The affect is one that feels supplemental, like a montage, comment thread, or experimental “sequence of images” recalling New Wave cinematic editing techniques. The series of repetitions becomes a continuous flow of canon, evoking Bergsonian movement — a movement independent from the space or duration that it covers — something like a cinematic Movement-Image, but in sound.
Of course, the delicacy of the curation primarily exists in Callahan’s diabolical positioning of these two works as a split. Some might called it fucked, but it is precisely this tension that feels necessary for music communities approaching composition seriously. Amazing that the counterpoint doesn’t happen more frequently; Callahan’s efforts form a needed precedent that still, somehow, feels subversive, rooted by nuanced and smart curation. After all, the die reihe states “technology is becoming an important element in the work of younger composers” (lol) — the two in-house parrots chilling and the six piano canons approach the dialect of a folk technology: instrumentalized, concise, comedic, terrifying, fun.