Today we’re listening to Mike Majkowski’s Swimming In Light. Carrying ever further on with his explorations of rhythm and repetition, it makes an odd sort of sense that Entr’acte is the home for Majkowksi’s newest record, especially given its more recent history with everything from drum machines to dub.
Majkowksi has always been interested in treating his double bass as a means of simultaneously reproducing each basic element of music: melody, harmony, and rhythm; often carrying out all three gestures simultaneously. Strictly speaking, his playing is simply extended technique of the bass, but Majkowski is a master of coaxing harmonic overtones and rhythmic taps out of his instrument without losing pace of his often fast tremolo bowing.
‘Belt Of Sand’, on Why Is There Something Instead Of Nothing was particularly deft at finding those transition points where both overtones and acoustic artefacts of his playing weave in and out of the foreground of the music – sometimes for such an extended period of time that the listener can be forgiven for forgetting that a single instrument is being played in realtime. In terms of instrumental practice, Majkowski is in similar form on Swimming In Light. However, while previous works were often characterized by an idiosyncratic and intimate air, his compositions here (particularly the opening ‘Radio Weather Vending Machine’) are more systematic and incorporate more formal rigour.
Take the first piece, ‘Radio Weather Vending Machine’. The work is split into precise 3 minute sections with a diversity of sound sources all contributing to its brooding, almost doom metal atmosphere (which immediately (if maybe erroneously) reminded me side B of CM von Hausswolff’s Graf Spee). If played distractedly at low volume, it could almost be mistaken for drone music. However, closer listening reveals a plethora of detail. The opening section has a soft but distinct bass note on the 1st and 4th beats, bowed double bass tremolo (on 1/16 s?) and cymbals mirroring the double bass which slowly fade, only to be accompanied by a field recording roughly squeaking time in 1/4 notes. In the next section the bass is playing every 4 beats, and a piano every 8, with the same cymbals and tremolo bass, the latter played down an octave from the first section. Each section shifts an octave back and forth, with a single harmonic note binding the last two sections together.
I don’t need to detail each sound source, small polyphony, and change of rhythmic structure for each of the 7 sections, but it is certainly worthwhile for the listener to explore themselves. It took me a few listens myself before I noticed the quiet bass drum kick which seems to exist only for the last few seconds of each section – and is delightful particularly for its brief portent of the change to come. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes the piece enthralling, and despite some of its near mathematically precise structures, never cold or aloof.
Early on in my listening sessions I came across this interesting review by Joseph O’Connor at Music Trust, which frequently references Morton Feldman’s motifs in comparison to Swimming In Light. You won’t find me arguing against Feldman’s outsize impact on minimalism in general, and indeterminacy in particular, in contemporary music as a whole. That said, I was more immediately struck by these rather serealist structures of ‘Radio Weather Vending Machine’, while granting that Feldman’s later music was more precisely orchestrated than his early graphic scores.
‘Structure And Posture’ is perhaps compositionally more similar to Majkowski’s previous work in its slow progression, but again diverges both in its instrumentation and precision. There is a sort of fragility imparted by the bright timbres of the vibraphone and field recordings that acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the intensity of side A. The pointillism of his 2014 piece ‘A Shadow Of Silver Dipped In Gold’ shares this, though much of his previous work (especially Neighbouring Objects, which I never managed to enjoy) is better characterized as having rather muddy dynamics. I found the clarity of recording and timbral differentiation on this record to better do the music justice, though your mileage may vary.
The harmonics of ‘Structure And Posture’ sounded particularly strange to me, and it took me a few minutes to discover why. A large portion of the piece consists of the double bass being bowed in A and G# – with only a semitone separation bringing a bit of queasiness to the piece. The other tonal sound sources mirror those notes, with only an occasional piano or vibraphone note in E and F. Taken together, this scale more closely resembles the Suzidil maqam of Arabic music than most Western scales (though I’m not a trained musician, so don’t take my word for it). Whatever the case, that scale produced for me a restive or uneasy mood, and it’s ultimate effect for me was to reconsider the title of the work in a new light. Structure and posture each imply exactly the kind of contemplative yet fragile tension the work produces.
While not a radical departure from his previous work, Mike Majkowski continues to refine his practice while gradually expanding his palette. Excellent stuff, and available directly from the label.