March News 2000

Matthew Ostrowski: VERTEBRA
In Concert: The London Sinfonietta at Présences Festival
Label Profile: GROUND FAULT
(from Government Alpha to Zipper Sky)
David Fiuczynski: JAZZPUNK
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Matthew Ostrowski
POGUS P21016-2

“Music has fallen into the habit of smoothing things out and slowing things down”, writes Matthew Ostrowski, “and because we are so lazy we confuse that sop to our lassitude with so-called aesthetic experience.” It’s rare these days for discs of electroacoustic music to come complete with manifesto (an occasional poem, maybe, but more often that not you’re just left to suffer in silence), but this one is quite revealing. “An assemblage of failures, incompletions, traumas, lacerations, fragments” is not something you’d get from an IRCAM press release, and on further inspection it doesn’t come as a surprise to read that “Vertebra” was recorded (live?) at IRCAM’s wacky Dutch cousin STEIM, and “tidied up” on ProTools later. It’s a fun-filled cut’n’splice job which might have attracted more attention had it been released on a more “commercial” label (whatever that means... is Merzbow commercial?) rather than on Al Margolis’ eclectic (and often uneven) Pogus. Ostrowski is correct when he describes his music as running “without stopping, and at a vertiginous speed”, but I take issue with the opening sentence above: after a decade which has seen Naked City and Ground Zero come and go, along with the rise of the Viennese PowerBook Mego mafia, not to mention the work of composers such as Dolden, Lyon and Bouhalassa, hi-speed jump/cut is now par for the course. Listeners are more alert than before, and much more discerning. This disc, had it been released in 1970, might have changed the world; as it is, it sounds reassuringly traditional, a hip young brother to Luc Ferrari’s “Music Promenade” (and that’s a compliment), so close the CD booklet and let Ostrowksi’s fascinating panoply of sounds speak for themselves, and you’ll have a ball.

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The London Sinfonietta at Présences Festival

February 8th & 9th, 2000

After several decades of what Robin Holloway once called “the lingua franca of the avant garde”, namely the Darmstadt sound and its New Complexity spin-offs, it seems national styles are back in: much of this music could not have come from anywhere other than Britain. The New British Sound is light, crystalline, but nonetheless passionate: it breathes, as one would expect, not Birtwistle (too Continental?) but Tippett and Britten (though without their profundity), and also late Stravinsky, Carter, Copland... and even John Adams and Mike Torke. If one were to choose one person responsible for this transatlantic tangle(wood) of influences, it would be tonight’s conductor, the affable Falstaffian 48 year-old Oliver Knussen. For well nigh twenty years Knussen has been the British Boulez, tirelessly championing new music with such venerable institutions as the Sinfonietta, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Aldeburgh Festival, but also as a frequent visitor to Tanglewood (hence the American connection).
Like Boulez, Knussen’s compositional output has also suffered as a result: “Etude 2” (not even written yet, apparently) was replaced at the last minute by the “Two Organa” and “Ophelia Dances” - this latter (already twenty-five years old!) along with “Coursing” and the Third Symphony had a huge impact on a younger generation of British (and American) composers, and its influence is easily discernible in Kenneth Hesketh’s glitzy “Theatrum” and Julian Anderson’s “Alhambra Fantasy”. Their orchestration is accomplished and scintillating (shades of Stravinsky, Ravel, Messiaen and Takemitsu - all Knussen favorites), and the motivic work is both angular and lyrical, but the end-result, though impressive, is curiously safe and reassuring. One senses that these guys, along with other Brit wunderkinds Tom Adès and James Macmillan, can (and probably will) live out their lives in comparative security thanks to a string of inevitable Arts Council and BBC Commissions - with Adès this is already happening: at 29 he’s Artistic Director at Aldeburgh (thanks Ollie...), runs the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and teaches at the Royal Academy. Geoffrey King-Gomez, on the other hand, though still not immune to Knussenisms, is just that bit older (he was born in 1949), and his “Magritte Weather” takes more risks, even getting lost in quarter-tone cello writing before finishing with a hilarious circus march which self-destructs admirably (a Misha Mengelberg influence? - King-Gomez lives in Amsterdam).
The second concert, a chamber affair, began with “A Purcell Garland”, a novel three-man tribute to England’s greatest composer, inviting George Benjamin, Ollie Knussen and Colin Matthews to arrange, de/re-compose and depart from Purcell Fantasias of their choice. Benjamin re-scored “Fantasia no. 7” à la Cage String Quartet, Knussen made some strategic pitch and tempo alterations to the “Fantasy on One Note”, and Matthews went to town on finishing (finishing off-his version explodes spectacularly!) “Fantasia no. 13”. The absence of the conductor (Ollie had taken a Eurostar train back to London the same morning), served to remind us that though Knussen represents one pole of attraction in recent British music, he’s not the only one. Brian Ferneyhough’s activities as composer and especially teacher (Freiburg, San Diego...) have also had an enormous impact, and one which has successfully transcended national frontiers. A work such as “The Under Side of Green” by Rebecca Saunders (now resident in Berlin - how come so many Brits emigrate?) could have come from France, Germany or the USA. Though difficult to listen to, it wasn’t especially frightening for violinist David Alberman, clarinetist Damaris Wollen and the doyen of British new music pianists, John Constable. Tom Adès’ “Catch”, on the other hand, gave the venerable Constable something to get his teeth into (Adès is a hell of a pianist in his own right), though to my mind the work comes off better on disc: having Damaris running around the hall in stockinged feet and stopping to toot a few notes here and there (shades of Suzanne Stephens?) didn’t serve any apparent musical purpose.
The real surprise in this second concert was “Don’t Say a Word” by Keith Johnson, a 34 year-old composer from Manchester. Johnson is largely self-taught (it shows: you try writing fortissimo sustained notes in the clarinet’s “break” register and watch your teacher reach for the red pen), but it is precisely such unorthodox writing that makes this work so unusual, plus the fact that ninety per cent of the time it uses just two pitch classes, A and G, with violin and cello occasionally mapping out the micro-tonal space between. Maybe Johnson’s inclusion in the program was flukish good luck, but even so I look forward to hearing more of his work.
This welcome overview of recent British music ended with Simon Bainbridge’s “Four Primo Levi Settings” for mezzo (Susan Bickley, excellent), viola (bravo Roger Chase for executing the second song’s fiendishly difficult solo part with consummate mastery), clarinet and piano. Bainbridge has definitely come of age, and the somber intensity of Levi’s texts obviously inspired him to produce what I believe to be his finest work so far. Exquisitely written, uncompromisingly intense and genuinely moving, this is one the finest song cycles British music has produced since Britten.

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The Ground Fault Roundup

California-based noisehead Erik Hoffman ran Pinch A Loaf productions almost single-handedly from 1995 to 1999, before finally running out of time to design and handcraft the label’s unique packaging (ranging from tar paper and screen mesh to spring-mounted green vinyl) and finally succumbing to the boring old jewel box. But in so doing, he created along with Randy Yau an exquisite design style for Ground Fault that is as elegant and instantly recognizable as Peter Savile’s classic work for Factory or Vaughan Oliver’s Cocteau Twins and Pixies 4AD covers. Along with the unique look, Hoffman came up with the intriguing (but inherently problematic, as we shall see) idea of categorizing his releases into three Series: Series I is “quiet” stuff, Series III is “full volume and harsh throughout”, and Series II is whatever comes in between... So far, the two French projects listed here by Eric La Casa and my partner-in-crime Jean-Luc Guionnet (see reviews elsewhere of his work with Calx and Return of the New Thing) are Series I, Government Alpha is most definitely Series III, and the other four are Series II. All the following are recommended (though cautiously at times... read on!) and attractively priced. Hoffman: “I’m a firm believer that the public is getting ripped off paying $12 - $20 for a CD. I wanted a great price plan and could find none better than the following: 1 for $8, 2 for $15 and 3 for $20 (postage in North America included).” Contact Ground Fault at, snailmail at PO Box 4923, Downey, CA 90241, USA, or visit the site at The following is a totally subjective (and probably not at all helpful) shopping guide.

Zipper Sky: ICKI BEATS Ground Fault GF 001

Starting your Ground Fault Initiation with “Icki Beats” (Series II) by Zipper Sky (AKA multimedia video artist and sculptor Maria Moran) may be not be a good idea. This is an entertaining mixed bag of current electronica tendencies, from skewed drum’n’bass (“Bumble Bee Beats”, “Speak and Spell Coad”) to snarling noise (“Hard”) via funky digital glitchery (“4:04 PM”, “Dan Drum Sin”) and quasi trip-hop (“Z Dance”), but none of the album’s 23 tracks develops very far - perhaps you should experience the music in the context of Moran’s video work: I’d certainly like to catch a live performance one day (though in the meantime, there’s some nice stuff on her site at

Lockweld: EUTECTIC Ground Fault GF 006

The inner sleeve shows a live action shot of band members Karen and Makita - or is it Steve as Hoffman’s Press Release states? In any case, he’s wearing a T-shirt that says either Fight to Kill or Right to Kill, and seems to be using an industrial sander with gleeful brutality, so I won’t push the issue. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t like to meet him in a dark alley in his native Cleveland. Like fellow Cleveland natives Pere Ubu, the city’s industrial history has clearly left its mark on their music (Ubu’s David Thomas is known to wax lyrical at the sight of a blast furnace in action), and from the sound of it, it must be a pretty tough place to live. Despite the surface rage though there is a substratum of calm which occasionally comes into focus due to Karen’s use of samples and loops which fix the post-Neubaten fury of Steve/Makita and channel it into repetitive mantras (“Necro-Omega”, “Abeyance”). Even so, they could have chainsawed off twenty minutes from this album: 63 minutes leaves you not so much bruised as bored. The last track’s a nice surprise, though - Steve sounds almost friendly...

Government Alpha: SPORADIC SPECTRA Ground Fault GF 004

Yep, this is Series III all right. It’s the work of Yasutoshi Yoshida (his address is on the CD if you feel like sending him the address of a good Ear Nose and Throat specialist), and apart from a few seconds of light relief at the beginning of “Cryptic Cave”, it’s a non-stop 57 minute barrage of EXTREMELY LOUD noise. Even at normal listening volume (though exactly how you’d define that is up to you, I guess), “Pale Eyed Lemming” sounds like a jackhammer trying in vain to punch its way through a ten-foot thick iron plate, right there in your living room. “Clean and precise, like a surgeon’s scalpel,” writes Hoffman. Be that as it may, my lamentably traditional musical education rears its ugly head and forces me to question exactly what this music is for. OK, OK, so you’ll write back and say: “Does music have to be for (or about) anything?”, to which I can only answer “no”... but I can think of no remotely socially acceptable situation where you’d actually want to play this to anyone else (unless he/she’s a noise freak like yourself, assuming you are one), and trying to listen to it on headphones at any reasonable volume level is frankly fucking dangerous. Next to this, Throbbing Gristle is as easy as Mozart.

Jean-Luc Guionnet: AXENE Ground Fault GF 005

Even Hoffman admits (an early sign of future problems ahead?) that billing “Axène” as Series I is misleading. This is certainly “quiet” compared to Lockweld and Alpha, but it’s a hell of a way from Music for Airports. (Guionnet’s favorite piece of electroacoustic music is Xenakis’ “Bohor”, and it shows.) “Axène”, by the way, means “what grows or is brought up in a barren environment”, and it’s not in my English-French dictionary -I should know, since I translated Jean-Luc’s (rather poetic) liner notes. The three pieces on the disc certainly take their time growing in the aforementioned environment (Scelsi also comes to mind), and can even seem to drag if you’re not listening carefully. “Axène” and “Ivraie/Baragnes” date from 1989 and have the feel of enthusiastic student works getting to grips with studio techniques, while “Ressac/Ressac” is more recent (1996) and more accomplished. In his electroacoustic work, as in his saxophone playing, Guionnet forces you to confront sound on its atomic level, working his material in a distinctly non-academic, almost sculptural fashion. If you’re not ready to make an effort, this might not be for you. If you are, you’ll get a lot out of it. Oh, and if you can explain those liner notes, please let me know.

Jazzkammer: HOT ACTION SEXY KARAOKE Ground Fault GF 007

Traveling to and from the Continent on ferries in the days before they opened the Channel tunnel, I always met Norwegians in the bar and they were always totally fucked up. I formed the distinct impression that Norway was such a dreadful place that its young adult male population escaped at the earliest possible moment and spent several years drinking themselves into oblivion while rolling back and forth across the North Sea. Now it seems Norway is a smashing place to be, if the press is anything to go by (my colleagues at The Wire were certainly taken with the place), and although they refused to join the merry club euphemistically known as the European Union, they seem to be nonetheless quite au fait with the latest developments in Euro-electronica. Jazzkammer is Norwegian duo Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre (sorry lads, if I slagged off your country I’ll buy you a drink next time I see you on the ferry) and their respective backgrounds in punk (Origami Replika), trip-hop (Kaptein Kaliber) and improv (Public Enema, Der Brief) all help make “Hot Action Sexy Karaoke” a wild romp through the backwoods of contemporary electronic post-pop, and a splendid introduction to a label I hope to hear a lot of in the years to come.

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David Fiuczynski

New York-based guitar whiz David Fiucynski (of Screaming Headless Torsos, Lunar Crush and Me’Shell NdegeOcello fame) was bounced into launching his own Fuzelicious Morsels label when “JazzPunk” was rejected by a well-known jazz label (he’s naming no names) on the grounds that it “sounded like out-takes, aimless jamming with no arrangements.” True, the sound is very much “in yer face” - despite impeccable jazz credentials (studies with Mick Goodrick, Bob Moses and George Russell, a B.Mus. from the New England Conservatory...) it’s the rock guitar sound that has captured Fiucynski’s ear, that close-miked, crackling, ready-to-explode-any-minute sound beloved of Hendrix, Lifetime-period McLaughlin and Sharrock.

Perhaps the A+R people at the unnamed label were afraid to admit they were shocked more by the material than the surface sound, since “JazzPunk” is after all a collection of eclectic cover versions, and a diverse one at that. Tracks include Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life” (à la drum’n’bass!), Chick Corea’s old chestnut “La Fiesta”, Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” (in a Middle-Eastern-inflected version) and Ellington and Strayhorn’s exquisite “Star Crossed Lovers”, but also lesser-known pieces (Shannon Jackson’s “Red Warrior”, Jack Walrath’s “HipGnosis” and an extract from George Russell’s epic “African Game”) and even Chopin’s Prélude Op.28 no.4 and John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes”, which, to quote the guitarist, “represents my patriotic (or not-so patriotic) feeling towards my country as an African-American”.
Fiucynski’s background is just as diverse as his choice of material (“my father is from Berlin and my mother from South Carolina, and I grew up in both the US and Germany so there’s definitely a cultural mix”), and inevitably the Fuze nickname leads one sooner or later to the dreaded word “fusion”. Much-maligned term this may be, with its associations of cheesy 70’s million-notes-a-minute guitar heroes (I’m naming no names) and, more recently, the hi-energy cavorting of groups such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine, but there have been celebrated examples of the real article (Joe Harriot and John Mayer’s Indo-Jazz Fusions, Miles’ “On the Corner”...). As any scientist will tell you, fusion doesn’t just happen by slamming things together in the vain hope they’ll stick - there’s no surer way for them to fall to pieces - but by being in an environment where the temperature is such that the constituent elements just become one. New York City is such as hotbed of activity, and Fuze’s sparring partners in recent years have included M-Base escapees Geri Allen, Gene Lake and David Gilmore, funkateers Bernie Worrell and Shannon Jackson, jazz monsters Muhal Richard Abrams, Jabali Billy Hart and Don Pullen, and Downtowners Elliott Sharp and Hasidic New Wave. From the plantation lullaby post-Acid Jazz of Me’Shell to the searing rock/funk of the Screaming Headless Torsos (how many funk and fusion freaks may have passed over this band thinking they were a hardcore unit, I wonder?), Fiucynski has turned in some memorable work, and interested punters are well-advised to check out not only this CD but also Fuze’s website at

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Copyright 2000 by Paris Transatlantic