Alexander Sigman: VURT Cycle

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Composer Alexander Sigman releases "VURT Cycle," featuring performances by violinist Hajnal Pivnick, flutist Matteo Cesari, Ensemble Phorminx, Ensemble Modelo62, and Discord Workshop. Inspired by a novel titled "Vurt" by UK sci-fi author Jeff Noon, Sigman's compositional process and development of electronic materials for the cycle was shaped by technologically forward-looking concerns in Noon's work.


On his second release for New Focus, composer Alexander Sigman turns to science fiction, specifically the work of UK based author Jeff Noon, for inspiration. Using his dystopian novel Vurt as a jumping off point, Sigman maps paradigms active within Noon’s work on musical parameters, tying the works in the VURT Cycle together through several recurring principles. Noon’s exploration of the hybridization of species manifests itself in Sigman’s interest in recycled musical material; the characteristics of parallel universes in Vurt are expressed through the dichotomy and integration of live instruments and electronics. The pervasive portrayal of urban decay and ruin creeps into Sigman’s works as a sonic frame, and the influence on Noon of British New Wave bands shows up in samples in Sigman’s electronic palette. Sigman conjures an unfamiliar, futuristic world in the music of the VURT Cycle, expertly capturing science fiction’s penchant for challenging assumptions and extrapolating possibilities.

The opening work on the recording, VURTRUVURT for solo violin and electronics performed here by Havnal Pivnick, employs an unconventional method for the media playback. The electronic sounds are projected through a pair of small sound “exciters” attached to the violin and a resonating glass surface, placing the violin in a dual role as producer and conduit of sound. The piece opens with mechanistic whistling sounds, evoking unmanned machines creaking in an abandoned factory. The violin enters in anxious fits and starts, with microtonal double stops and tremolos. Fragments of songs from the Manchester bands that Noon cites as influences pepper the electronics and inform the violin material, echoing a world that exists on the other side of a vast chasm.

atrocity exhibition for ensemble and electronics is also shaped by the legacy of Manchester pop, specifically the Joy Division song of the same name and the J.G. Ballard stories that inspired it. The instrumentation Sigman chooses splits the ensemble into three categories to mirror the diversity of creatures populating Noon’s Vurt: electronic (electric violin, electric guitar, and electric bass), mechanical (prepared piano), and animal (horn). Using sonic models from field recordings, urban sounds such as car horns, and glitchy electronic sounds evoking malfunctioning systems, Sigman builds constellations of interrelated, dynamic sound spheres. Citing the trance oriented introduction to the Joy Division song as the impetus for the piece, Sigman’s work is decidedly less static, but shares a character of non-linearity for all but its closing minute and a half, when the isolated islands of sound accumulate into something that resembles a system malfunction.

Sigman’s setting for down the bottle for bass flute, electronics, and sound installation is “Bottletown,” Noon’s decaying former recycling center that symbolizes the crumbling urban infrastructure in Vurt. Sigman builds imagery into his score by constructing the sound installation with broken glass shards on a glass pane. Throughout the work, we hear the sound of glass shattering and shimmering underneath and around insistent two note utterances in the bass flute.

le jardin des supplices for bass flute, violin, cello, and live electronics is inspired by a 1899 novel by French author Octave Mirbeau, literally translated as “The Torture Garden.” Mirbeau’s work was a point of departure for Noon, and here Sigman creates interdependent relationships between instrument layers (or metaphorical“victims”), with the strings merged as a pair and the bass flute mediating between them and the electronics. This is, in a sense, process music, albeit unsettlingly so -- armed with Sigman’s metaphor we can hear a slow degradation of the integrity of each layer of material, as they become “progressively hollowed out by parasitic external influences.”

The final work in the VURT Cycle is dIXsf, scored for flute, clarinet, trumpet, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion, piano, violin, and cello. The nine member ensemble is divided into sub-groups with shared expressive characteristics, and Sigman mixes and matches the groups to create hybrid configurations. In the opening minute of the work, glissandi manifest themselves in various guises on different instruments, connecting punctuated accents and the resonances they leave behind. When the strings enter, they introduce unstable sustained pitches and thin tremolos, and soon after one hears similar material in the clarinet and guitar. Sigman’s hybrid concept is a dynamic one, with musical ideas infecting other instrument groups, evolving due to inherent instrumental differences as well as the intentional distortion of the initial gesture. The work culminates with what Sigman describes as a dirge, an inexorable and labored march wherein the fragmented ensemble attempts (and apparently fails) to fuse together into a symbiotic organism. A coda, dedicated to David Bowie, scion for many a band in Manchester and beyond, begins with an ensemble cacophony before the piano finishes the work with a series of flourishes and towering, resonant chords.

Alexander Sigman’s affinity for science fiction shows up in his thirst for musical innovation and his fluency in creating musical analogues to thematic concepts. VURT Cycle is a sound world constructed from patterns of sonic interrelationships that generate unique and otherworldly results, sometimes unsettling, but always grounded in tight aesthetic underpinnings.

-Dan Lippel

Producers: Alexander Sigman (Tracks 1-4), Dario Giustarini (Track 5)

Mastering:The SoundLAB

Artwork and Layout: Aquiles Hadjis

Recording Information:

  • Track 1: The Cell, NYC, June 22, 2016 (live recording)
  • Track 2: Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds, UK, March 25, 2014 (live recording)
  • Track 3: Conrad Prebys Music Center, University of California San Diego, May 17, 2012 (studio recording)
  • Track 4: Daegu International Contemporary Music Festival, Daegu Music House, Korea, June 26, 2014 (live recording)
  • Track 5: Splendor, Amsterdam, November 15, 2019 (Dario Giustarini, recording engi- neer) (live recording)

Alexander Sigman

Alexander Sigman’s award-winning instrumental, electroacoustic, and interdisciplinary works have been featured on major international festivals, exhibitions, institutions, and venues across Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. He has been selected for artist residencies at the Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart, Germany), the Djerassi Founda-tion, the Paul Dresher Ensemble Artists Residency Center, and Gullkistan, Center for Creativity (Iceland). In 2013-2014, he undertook a musical research residency at IRCAM.

Nominal/Noumenal, Sigman’s first portrait recording, was released on Carrier Records in 2012. In 2017, fcremap, a two-disc set of audiovisual works, appeared on New Focus Recordings. Other recordings have been released on the innova, Urlicht Audiovisual, and Lotus-Open-Factory labels.

Sigman completed his doctorate in Music Composition at Stanford University in 2010. He was previously Associate Professor and Chair of the Music program at the International College of Liberal Arts (iCLA) of Yamanashi Gakuin University in Kofu, Japan and Assistant Professor of Composition at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. Currently, he is a music software engineer at Amper Music, an AI-driven music technology company in New York City.

Hajnal Pivnick

Hungarian-American violinist Hajnal Pivnick has developed a career as a performer and curator promoting community-driven music by modern and living composers. Her work has been recognized through foundational support from New Music USA, the Barlow Endowment, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She is co-artistic director of Tenth Intervention, a collective of musicians that explores the intersection of performance and experiential art, and its potential to reflect social issues.

As a soloist and chamber musician she has performed in festivals, conferences, and concert series in the United States, Cuba, and Europe. She attended Carnegie Mellon University and received her master’s degree from the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungary.

Recent projects include the albums: Electric Bands, on innova Recordings (D. J. Sparr, Brianna Matzke, Momenta Quartet, Kristina Bachrach); and Pentaptych (Ryan Lott), commissioned by the Philbrook Museum of Art and presented by the Tulsa Ballet.

Discord Workshop

Discord Workshop was an ensemble founded in 2013 in the context of the Advanced Master in Contemporary Music at the School of Arts Ghent in collaboration with Ictus. The quintet instrumentation featured Pieter Lenaerts (double bass/electric bass guitar), Nico Couck (acoustic and electric guitar), Corey Klein (horn), Tomoko Honda (piano), and Takao Hyakutome (violin).

Throughout their existence, Discord Workshop collaborated and premiered compositions by Stefan Beyer, Ethan Braun, Marc Codina, Hikari Kiyama, Alexander Sigman, and others. The quintet performed frequently throughout 2013-2014 in Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Matteo Cesari

Passionately dedicated to contemporary music, artist, performer, and researcher Matteo Cesari has performed worldwide, from Europe to China, from Australia to the United States. Amongst other awards and distinctions, he has received the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis at Darmstadt.

Cesari has collaborated with numerous soloists of his generation, such as the singers Stéphane Degout and Barbara Hannigan and harpists Anneleen Lenaerts and Émilie Gastaud. He has performed as a featured soloist with the BBC Scottish Orchestra and Ensemble InterContemporain. Renowned composers and conductors with whom he has worked have included Salvatore Sciarrino, Brian Ferneyhough, Pierre Boulez, Péter Eötvös, Matthias Pintscher, Tito Ceccherini, Ivan Fedele, Hugues Dufourt, Stefano Gervasoni, Bruno Mantovani, Michael Finnissy, and Pierluigi Billone.

He has regularly offered masterclasses and seminars organized by the Shanghai Conservatory (China), Tokyo University of the Arts (Japan), Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) and the University of London (UK), among others. In addition, Cesari works as a teaching assistant for the composition class of Salvatore Sciarrino at Accademia Chigiana of Siena in Italy. Recently, he was invited by Maurizio Pollini to participate as soloist to his Pollini Project at Toppan Hall in Tokyo and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

Ensemble Phorminx

Ensemble Phorminx was founded in 1993 by performers and composers in Darmstadt, Germany. To date, well over 200 compositions have been created for Phorminx. The ensemble’s diverse repertoire is regularly presented at various festivals (Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, Frankfurt Feste, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, Festival Rainy Days Luxembourg, Heidelberg Spring, Contemporary Music Week Seoul, Daegu International Contemporary Music Festival [South Korea], Schwäbisch-Gmünd Festival for European Church Music, alpsmove festival südtirol) as well as at concerts in Germany and abroad. In addition, the ensemble is responsible for the curation of three concert series in Darmstadt, Frankfurt, and Tübingen, respectively. In 1996, Phorminx was awarded the Bad Homburg Förderpreis.

The CD Vom Eise Befreit (EMI) was awarded the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik [German Record Critics’ Prize]. Two more CDs featuring chamber music by Helmut Lachenmann and compositions for Max Beckmann's graphic Apokalypse cycle (including a book with reproductions of Max Beckmann's graphics and texts on art and music) were published in 2009 by WERGO and in the edition neue zeitschrift für musik.

Two portrait CDs with works by Achim Bornhöft and Volker Blumenthaler have recently been released. In 2011, the ensemble was awarded the Darmstädter Musikpreis. A portrait CD of Karola Obermüller with the participation of the ensemble has just appeared on WERGO.

Ensemble Modelo62

Through a combination of ambitious and innovative programming and a high level of virtuosity, the Netherlands-based Ensemble Modelo62 has earned its outstanding international reputation in experimental music today.

Forming close collaborations with composers, taking risks to develop new work and talent, and placing an emphasis on the commissioning of both young upcoming composers and those from more established generations are amongst the main goals of Modelo62. These commissions form a significant part of the ensemble’s growing repertoire, averaging over a dozen world premieres per year.

Thanks to their growing and substantial international profile, Modelo62 has toured Mexico, Argentina, Norway, the UK, and Germany. Festival appearances have included the Centre of Experimentation of Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires, Argentina), the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, Festival Tou Scene (Stavanger, Norway), Toonzetters (Amsterdam), Dag in de Branding (The Hague), November Music (Den Bosch), and the Gaudeamus Muzie- kweek (Utrecht).

Modelo62 has also been ensemble-in-residence at the Orpheus Instituut (Ghent, Belgium) where they produced their first CD, Multiple Paths. Modelo Moves (Attacca) consists of works from their first tour to Argentina. More recent releases include Clarence Barlow Musica Algorithmica, (World Edition), and Claudio Baroni’s portrait recording Motum, released on Unsounds.



The Road to Sound

With VURT Cycle, composer and media artist Alexander Sigman looks to Jeff Noon’s science fiction novel of the same name to create a dystopian album of scratchy noises, stark electronics, and jarring crashes. While it’s hard to pinpoint inspirations in purely instrumental music, Sigman embodies the haunting, uncertain aura of science fiction with finesse on this record.

— Vanessa Ague, 8.07.2020


Vital Weekly

Concept albums appear to all the rage again. Part of me likes this. It’s good when an album isn’t just about the musician’s ‘feelings’. It shows that they have ideas of how songs can fit into a bigger picture or story. Alexander Sigman’s latest album, VURT Cycle, is loosely based around science fiction. Now before you get all worried, this isn’t an epic space opera. Oh no. What Sigman has done is base each song on a different novel. The title itself is inspired by Jeff Noon’s Vurt.

Through the use of live instruments, electronics, and samples Sigman creates a piece of music that works both as a companion piece to the original novels and something that stands alone. The standout track is ‘The

Atrocity Exhibition’ taking its name from both a Joy Division song and the phenomenal JG Ballard book. By using electronic violin, guitars, piano, horns, and field recordings Sigman creates an agonisingly claustrophobic world, which mirrors Ballard’s original book. As with the book, there are surreal moments of light-hearted revelry. These motifs break up the tension and delivery of some of the albums most enjoyable moments. Even if they are fleeting.

There are parts of VURT Cycle that sound like a pained whale Le Jardin des Supplices in particular. The song is also inspired by an 1899 novel by Octave Mirbeau. These sections hammer home the finality of life. The rough translation of the song is The Torture Garden, so the pained sounds are very fitting. When these motifs appear, they are unsettling but also compelling. You cannot look away in case you miss something, but you also want the animal to be put out of its misery. This is the feeling of listening to Le Jardin de Supplices. You want it to end, but at the same time, there is a pleasure of listening to it and enforcing yourself to endure it.

What VURT Cycle does really well is to create the slightly dystopic vibes from the original novels, Atrocity Experiment especially, but it manages to deliver a dose of humanity that is sometimes missing. From listening to these songs, you don’t get an idea of their plots or stories, but of the kind of world those characters inhabit. It’s a world similar to our own, but also fundamentally different.

— Nick Roseblade, 12.01.2020


Take Effect Reviews

A composer from Brooklyn with an interest in sci-fi, Alexander Sigman found inspiration in a Jeff Noon’s novel for this highly adventurous effort that hosts the Discord Workshop, Ensemble Phorminx, and Ensemble Modelo62, among others.

VURTRUVURT starts the listen with 10 minutes of violin from Hajnal Pivnick, as Sigman manipulates live electronics on the live recording from 2016 that strategically allows the electronic sounds to emanate from the violin, and atrocity exhibition follows with direct nods to Joy Division. Just as dark as a Joy Division tune, there’s electronic ideas in the form of violin, guitar and bass, as well as sonic moments constructed from field recordings, and even urban noises like car horns populating the trance like formula.

Halfway through, down the bottle, with Matteo Cesari on bass flute, finds itself in a very unique spot as Sigman replicates the sounds of glass shards on glass pane as the flute quivers, while le jardin des supplices recruits bass flute, violin and cello against Sigman’s precise layering techniques.

The final track, diXsf, then brings in a 9 member chamber, where strings are used sparingly but effectively, while the clarinet is often ominous as distortion and pitch are turned into a refined science.

A leader in the area of instrumental, electroacoustic and interdisciplinary works, VURT Cycle is another exciting and unclassifiable exercise from Sigman that’s of the highest caliber and one that you’ll be thankful you spent time with.

— Tom Haugen, 12.13.2020


Midwest Record

Inspired by a sci-fi work, this electrician wires up the synapses and neural networks to take you to strange places that seem right at home for the typical sci-fi fan. With real instruments weaving in in and out for coloration, this is certainly a next wave recording for progressive tastes that have a ticket to the end of the line.

— Chris Spector, 11.21.2020


Manchester of the Future

We’ve been enjoying the music of American composer Alexander Sigman since 2011, when we heard his Nominal / Noumenal for Carrier Records and later his fcremap for New Focus Recordings. To say his works are “complex” would be an understatement, and his musical ambitions are often too lofty for me to grasp, but one underlying trend is his interest in processing external source materials, quite often non-musical in nature, and trying to engineer them into musical compositions; on fcremap, for instance, it was about transforming the work of a Korean animator, specifically related video and audio data, into a musical score.

On today’s record VURT Cycle (NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS fcr257), he’s doing it with the science fiction writing of Jeff Noon, acclaimed UK author, whose book Vurt was his debut novel and appeared in 1993 to great success. A reprint edition added some more short stories about life in this dystopian other world. In using this book as his framework, Sigman isn’t doing anything so prosaic as telling a story, although it might be that Vurt (which I never read) isn’t so much about narrative as it is about exploring another universe (like Dune). Instead, Sigman is attempting to “map paradigms” and adhere to “recurring principles” across the five movements of this VURT Cycle, drawing inspirations from concepts and images found in the book – and other related sources too.

It gets even more intellectually convoluted, as the music also pays homage to the Manchester New Wave scene at one point, in recognition of Noon’s background in Manchester punk (he was active musically before he wrote his first book); and one movement, ‘Le Jardin Des Supplices’, is an explicit reference to The Torture Garden, that decadent 1899 novel by Mirbeau which was a vicious attack on the hypocrisy of French politics, and also an inspiration for Jeff Noon. Sigman works his way through all of these layered, cross-referential compositions with the help of very gifted solo players – Hajnal Pivnick on violin, Matteo Cesari on bass flute, plus various small Ensembles, with which he plays his live electronics set-up. Read the extensive notes, and you’ll see that the configurations and relationships of these Ensembles have been carefully planned and arranged too, all in the service of the literary-musical ideas he’s trying to express. I’m also interested to learn that the five recordings are all separated by space and time, and the whole work took from 2012 to 2019 to complete, indicating the long-term commitment that the composer has made with this project.

As to the actual music, it’s quite a testing listen – many discordancies, harsh harmonics, and some of the individual performances (especially Pivnick’s violin) verge on the grating with their repetitive, astringent tone. All the moods thus created are extremely alienating, depicting the ravages of an unpleasant future world with merciless detail, and doing so at a very slow pace. The triumph of Sigman has been to bring together all of these complex yet related ideas, and form them into coherent musical statements. Not an easy listen, but there’s a lot of content and ideas to digest. From 26th July 2020.

— Ed Pinset, 5.22.2021

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