March News 2000
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. Its rare these days for discs of electroacoustic music to come complete with manifesto (an occasional poem, maybe, but more often that not youre just left to suffer in silence), but this one is quite revealing. An assemblage of failures, incompletions, traumas, lacerations, fragments is not something youd get from an IRCAM press release, and on further inspection it doesnt come as a surprise to read that Vertebra was recorded (live?) at IRCAMs wacky Dutch cousin STEIM, and tidied up on ProTools later. Its a fun-filled cutnsplice 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 Ferraris Music Promenade (and thats a compliment), so close the CD booklet and let Ostrowksis fascinating panoply of sounds speak for themselves, and youll have a ball.
(back to top of March 2000 page)
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 tonights 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, Knussens 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 Heskeths glitzy Theatrum and Julian Andersons 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 hes 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 Englands 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, hes not the only one. Brian Ferneyhoughs 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 wasnt 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?) didnt serve any apparent musical purpose.
The real surprise in this second concert was Dont 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 clarinets 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 Johnsons 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 Bainbridges Four Primo Levi Settings for mezzo (Susan Bickley, excellent), viola (bravo Roger Chase for executing the second songs fiendishly difficult solo part with consummate mastery), clarinet and piano. Bainbridge has definitely come of age, and the somber intensity of Levis 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.
(back to top of March 2000 page)
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 labels 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 Saviles classic work for Factory or Vaughan Olivers 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: Im 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 email@example.com, snailmail at PO Box 4923, Downey, CA 90241, USA, or visit the site at www.groundfault.net. 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 drumnbass (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 albums 23 tracks develops very far - perhaps you should experience the music in the context of Morans video work: Id certainly like to catch a live performance one day (though in the meantime, theres some nice stuff on her site at www.zipperspy.com).
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 Hoffmans Press Release states? In any case, hes 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 wont push the issue. Suffice it to say that I wouldnt like to meet him in a dark alley in his native Cleveland. Like fellow Cleveland natives Pere Ubu, the citys industrial history has clearly left its mark on their music (Ubus 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 Karens 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 tracks a nice surprise, though - Steve sounds almost friendly...
Government Alpha: SPORADIC SPECTRA Ground Fault GF 004
Yep, this is Series III all right. Its 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, its a non-stop 57 minute barrage of EXTREMELY LOUD noise. Even at normal listening volume (though exactly how youd 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 surgeons 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 youll 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 youd actually want to play this to anyone else (unless he/shes 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 its a hell of a way from Music for Airports. (Guionnets 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 its not in my English-French dictionary -I should know, since I translated Jean-Lucs (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 youre 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 youre not ready to make an effort, this might not be for you. If you are, youll 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 alt.music 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 Ill 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.
(back to top of March 2000 page)
New York-based guitar whiz David Fiucynski (of Screaming Headless Torsos, Lunar Crush and MeShell NdegeOcello fame) was bounced into launching his own Fuzelicious Morsels label when JazzPunk was rejected by a well-known jazz label (hes 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...) its the rock guitar sound that has captured Fiucynskis 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 Methenys Bright Size Life (à la drumnbass!), Chick Coreas old chestnut La Fiesta, Hendrixs Third Stone from the Sun (in a Middle-Eastern-inflected version) and Ellington and Strayhorns exquisite Star Crossed Lovers, but also lesser-known pieces (Shannon Jacksons Red Warrior, Jack Walraths HipGnosis and an extract from George Russells epic African Game) and even Chopins Prélude Op.28 no.4 and John Philip Sousas Stars and Stripes, which, to quote the guitarist, represents my patriotic (or not-so patriotic) feeling towards my country as an African-American.
Fiucynskis 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 theres 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 70s million-notes-a-minute guitar heroes (Im 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 Mayers Indo-Jazz Fusions, Miles On the Corner...). As any scientist will tell you, fusion doesnt just happen by slamming things together in the vain hope theyll stick - theres 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 Fuzes 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 MeShell 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 Fuzes website at www.torsos.com.
(back to top of March 2000 page)
Copyright 2000 by Paris Transatlantic