REVISIO: EXTREEMIZMS early & late | Philip Corner

EXTREEMIZMS early & late bridges two periods of musical activity separated by 58 years. Looking back at a broad sample of any artist’s back catalogue, it’s totally reasonable to expect the older artist to pick at the naivety of his or her younger self. The youthful exuberance, a clunkiness or perhaps a lack of refinement. Maybe an overview simply highlights the artist hitting their peak very early and then somehow they thrashed around over subsequent decades with ever more mannered rehashes of their most potent ideas.

EXTREEMIZMS early & late is the second release I’ve explored this month that centres on an 85 year old.  (Alvin Lucier’s Illuminated By The Moon was the other). There is a huge temptation here to fall back into some form of quiet reverence for an elder. However, like his fellow octogenarian, there is nothing but consistent brilliance on display here…

The ever relevant label Unseen Worlds has collected this grouping of works for violin, cello, harp and piano. Presenting the nine pieces spotlighting work of Philip Corner – four from 1958, one from 2015 and four from 2016. The quartet is made up of Silvia Tarozzi (violin), Deborah Walker (cello), Rhodri Davies (harp) and Philip Corner (piano).

Corner is a highly interesting and perhaps somewhat overlooked composer. As a student he was guided by Otto Luening, Henry Cowell and Oliver Messian. He was a member of Fluxus, became immersed in Zen Buddhism and now lives in Italy. Corner is a significant artery channelling a huge swathe of the avant-garde.

After the brief wHoly Trintye, a duality ov duos – first (2016), the almost 15 minute 2 Extreemizms (2015) opens the album out into a gently blooming drone for violin and cello. The tiniest deepening of intensity some 4 minutes in beautifully evolves the entire scene. Yet deeper tones come in at around 7 and half minutes. So far, a group mind meditating in the same mental and physical space. And then it happens…

The stylus slips into freefall. That very same grouping spills out into a wild, see-sawing and yelping mess. The sudden exhilarating physicality of the players, revealing their own vocalisations like some fourth wall rule being dissolved.

The 3 parts of Two-part Monologue all from 1958 group together two sound sources. These are however a million miles away from any formulaic marriages of sound. Two-part Monologue No 1 opens the concept. The violin dances over a beautiful grid of cello, revealing Corner’s long held fascination with calligraphy. A beautiful, curving, swooping, dotting of the ‘i’s and crossing of the ‘t’s in sound…


Two-part Monologue No 2 sees the piano construct a similar grid, a meandering upward scale. During the climb, an odd string slashes momentarily like an imagined figment. At around the point it seems like nothing beyond the pattern of keys will develop, the violin reappears suddenly like a fizzing light sabre. Further momentary stabs occur as the piano slowly retreats into the darkness. This seemingly pleasant music remains pregnant with the power to shock. The shift is only ever the tiniest of gestures away.

Two-part Monologue No 3 delves into the microscopic granularity of the strings, the only difference is the speed of the bows touching them. Fast. Slow. Drawing marks in time.

Late in the album, wHoly Trinity, for a “free-togethering” (2016) is the only piece for a quartet and the sustain on Davies’ harp feels like a whole new world. The combinations and overlaps here confuse – from where is the sound coming – and by what means. By this point, your brain has been bathed in sparsity…

What is clear though, in the 6 decades the album straddles, Corner has never lost the ability to outline graceful originality with such an economy of means. The ideas haven’t bloated into something beyond the means of a duo or a quartet looking to control their instruments in a completely sensitive way. The meaning approximated in the album’s title lies in the exploration of the tiniest of gestures, how minute deviations can result in the most startling of dramas. The spiky jumping scattered throughout this recording might scare the listener into never quite relaxing. But this is no test of nerve. Corner has wonderfully showcased a playful 50 minutes of rewardingly immersive and deep listening.

Early and late, loud and quiet, thoughtful and glorious.

EXTREEMIZMS early & late is released on October 12th on Unseen Worlds, pre-order here







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