November Recordings 2000

November New Releases reviewed by Dan Warburton:
On Meniscus: GREG KELLEY: TRUMPET
On Intransitive: VARIIOUS
On Leo: Brennan, Coleman, Wolfarth, Zimmerlin
On Innova: SONIC CIRCUITS VIII
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Greg Kelley
GREG KELLEY: TRUMPET
Meniscus 009

I have absolutely no idea how Greg Kelley gets half of the sounds he does from a trumpet, and have to admit I'm not all that interested in finding out; sometimes a seemingly complex and rich noise can be produced by doing something utterly banal - the Swiss saxophonist Bertrand Denzler produces an amazing sound on his tenor by jangling his door keys across the instrument: it sounds wonderful but looks pretty stupid when you see him do it live - knowing how a trick's done can tend to take away the magic, as any professional conjurer will tell you. Kelley sounds at times as if he's hooked up his horn to an organ blower or vacuum cleaner (either that or he's the world's greatest circular breather, bar none), or stuffed a contact mic way down the bell to amplify the opening and closing of the valves into a deafening thud. It's all very impressive - history once more collapses in on itself: just when you were wondering where the trumpet could go beyond Axel Dörner, here's the answer - but, as Milton Babbitt once said, "Nothing grows old faster than a new sound." Albums such as this which apparently consist of extended technique for its own sake (hey, I'm not asking for "Stardust" or "My Funny Valentine", but a few notes would be nice once in a while..) are musically about as arid as reading a computer instruction manual. Yet there is the potential for great poetry here, and I look forward to hearing Kelley in the company of other fine improvisers who can create the environment in which his extraordinary sonic innovations acquire greater musical meaning. Watch this space.

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VARIIOUS (sic)
Various Artists
INTRANSITIVE INT 013 (2CD)
PO Box 391151, Cambridge MA 02139
www.intransitiverecordings.com

I studied computer music at the Eastman School of Music in 1986 in the "good old days" when you had to learn about three hundred UNIX commands (all of which I've mysteriously forgotten) and submit big job files involving a lot of number crunching to the machine during the night so as not to slow up the system for the other users. Back then I thought it was wonderfully impressive and efficient (it was compared to the laborious manual tape-splicing that the early pioneers of electronic music in 50s had to go through), but looking the current wonders of music software, my old Music 11 program files seem about as primitive as flint axes. The advent of affordable and accurate software has led to an extraordinary democratization in the field - being able to create complex works of electroacoustic music is no longer restricted to those with access to state-of-the-art studios hidden away in music faculties and recording studios: source sounds can easily be captured with eminently portable MiniDisc equipment (no substitute of course for a Neuman but if all you're going to do at the end is mangle the sounds with downloaded DIY software, who's going to notice?) and data transferred to the hard disk at the click of a mouse to be sampled, looped, morphed and mashed up with alarming ease. If you're familiar with your programs you can probably turn out in a day what it took Karlheinz Stockhausen a month to graft together - in terms of data, that is: I defy anyone today to come up with something as elaborate and exquisite as "Kontakte" in an afternoon on ProTools.
And that's precisely the point - a lot of the music featured on this excellent double CD from Intransitive sounds a little too.. easy (not that it's easy listening: far from it). Recent years have seen a veritable explosion of new labels specializing in electroacoustic music (a term I use to include all the various sub-genres of electronica from ultra-minimalist to hardcore Japanese), all seemingly in touch with each other via email and file transfers, and hence it's no surprise that this austere yet elegant compilation features music from all over the planet. The back tray text piece by Achim Wollscheid sets the tone of the project: "the further we distance ourselves from what once directed the idea of "music" (a coherent sonic body that relates to a present social body) the clearer we can now recognize certain forms of sound realizing multi-layered relations in time and space." Wollscheid argues cogently that this music (if "music" is still a word he's prepared to use) demands listening conditions radically different from those that have prevailed up to now in concert halls, clubs, living rooms and Walkman headphones. Certainly, it was only through extremely concentrated listening through good headphones that I was able to appreciate the extraordinarily beautiful micro-sonorities of Toshiya Tsunoda's "Solid vibration of the surface of concrete ground" (like a tiny trickling of water in a thin metal pipe recorded somewhere deep underground) or the delicate filigree nuances of Roel Meelkop's "1. (Transition)" (mistakenly billed as the piece by Jérôme Noetinger, and vice versa). The Walkman, my usual listening medium through necessity, was totally incapable of giving me an idea of the timbral sculpture in John Hudak's "Gamelan", and a truly extreme example of high and low frequency minimalism such as *0's "20K - 20 - 19K - 21" (and it is exactly that) didn't register at all. The pieces that exploit the computer's potential for organizing mass-event sounds à la Xenakis - John Watermann's "Killing a Dove in an Echoless Room" (the title's better than the piece), Marc Behrens' "Revelation" and Brume's "Coltrane Colony" (though how this latter relates to the late tenor saxophonist is beyond me) - worked well out there in the street on the Walkman, but these were not the works that impressed me the most.
Justin Bennett's "Grassland" cuts and splices diverse field recordings to make a constantly surprising metacollage of interior and exterior soundworlds - distant rainfall intercuts abruptly with close-up cicadas, night crashes into day, intimate human conversation becomes threatening flying insect noise. This piece puts the linear narrative aesthetic of Luc Ferrari's "Presque Rien"s put through the mincer. The result is striking and modern, though the studio sleight-of-hand that characterized Ferrari's original seminal 1970 "Presque Rien N° 1" which condensed events recorded over several days into a totally coherent daybreak lasting just over twenty minutes is conspicuously absent: Bennett makes no attempt to smooth over the cracks, nor does his aesthetic demand it.
While some of these works use found sounds - albeit transformed almost beyond recognition - many inhabit a soundworld that is new and unique to computer music. Pimmon's "Front Lawn in Winter", four minutes or so of weird fluttery buzzing followed by a disturbing (door?) slamming three times is as striking for its sonic originality as its seeming formlessness: the piece just is, and that's it. Similarly Kevin Drumm's "Untitled" could be the sound that micro-organisms make in a petri dish (if ever anyone gets round to recording them); a vague carpet drone of indefinite pitch arrives from nowhere in particular, on top of which sporadic swooping glissandi and very distant twanging noises appear and disappear. Again, the final clattering flourish is unprepared and disconcerting. Elsewhere, other works inhabit simple binary and ternary forms and disguise the fact by their extraordinary sound surface - Jos Smoulders' "Frequenzen" is essentially a simple ABA+coda(A+B) structure, though its garbled extraterrestrial speech fragments ("alleged use of illegal drugs" - haha - is the only clearly recognizable phrase) seem designed to throw listeners off the scent.
For all the wonders (Michael Prime's eerie "Steam Radio", Jérôme Noetinger's clinically brutal "Larsen Lux", a direct-to-DAT improvisation using mixing desk feedback, Taylor Deupree's (almost) danceable post-Mego "_doClip") one can't help feeling that the guys at Intranstitive could have thinned this down to a single disc: the offerings from Voice Crack and Martin Tetreault add nothing to their existing discographies in terms of new developments, Klas Augustsson's "Rosa surv" (which sounds like Pauline Oliveros recorded from an unstable short-wave receiver) is weak, and Stelzer and Murray's "The Social Life of Small Urban Species" and Jason Lescalleet's "Tape Deck Model RD 504" visit territories better mapped out by other contributors. Richard Chartier's "sent" is seductively atmospheric, with its tropical birds duetting in a digital reverb-drenched rain forest, but is little more than a snapshot.
When the then Cambridge Professor of Music Alexander Goehr was asked once why Music Undergraduates had to spend a year writing exercises in late-Renaissance counterpoint, he replied memorably: "Because they knew something that we have now forgotten." I would venture to suggest that the same dictum holds true for those pioneers of musique concrète and Elektronisches Musik such as Henry, Stockhausen, Xenakis, et al.. Although the talent on display here is impressive and promises much for the future, I question to what extent the featured composers have had to really live with their sounds, let alone create them from scratch. With respect to form (or perhaps the younger generation would prefer the word "architecture"), hijacking a bit of philosophical gobbledygook from Gilles Deleuze about "rhizomes" is no excuse for not being to put together a structurally coherent and convincing span of music. The hip young Powerbook-wielding cats may pay lip-service to the founding fathers of acousmatic music (many of whom are still going strong, thanks to a surge of vampiric energy culled from the young lions' media exposure), but they could do a lot worse than go back to the work of Parmegiani, Bayle, Dhomont and Vande Gorne and learn how to manage a large-scale form with both technical and musical maturity. Such quibbles aside, however, I commend this compilation to anyone as a fine example of what's good and exciting in today's electronic music.

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MOMENTUM 2
John Wolf Brennan / Gene Coleman / Christian Wolfarth / Alfred Zimmerlin
LEO CD LR 296
1999's "Momentum" (Leo CD LR 274) was a trio affair featuring Irish-born (now resident in Switzerland) Brennan on piano, percussionist Christian Wolfarth and Chicago's Gene Coleman on bass clarinet (and melodica). They set about to examine the concept of "moment form" (as expounded by Karlheinz Stockhausen in his seminal music theory articles "The Concept of Unity in Electronic Music" and "...how time passes...") as a starting point for the group improvisational process (Stockhausen wrote of his 1963 "Momente": "This is no self-contained work with unequivocally fixed beginning, formal structure and ending, but a polyvalent composition containing independent events. Unity and continuity are less the outcome of obvious similarities than of immanent concentration on the present, as uninterrupted as possible"). This new follow-up album "Momentum 2" is sonically far richer than its predecessor, thanks to the addition of Alfred Zimmerlin's cello. Brennan, a singularly original pianist with a good nose for sniffing out a new trend in improv and following it, is as agile and florid as ever, and frequent sparring partner Wolfarth sounds less timid, while Coleman is positively ebullient, his wide registral leaps recalling Eric Dolphy's angular work on Gunther Schuller's Third Stream projects of the early Sixties.
Preoccupied with the small form though this music may be, it is far from "minimalist" - an unfortunate word inevitably conjuring up Feldmanesque landscapes of next-to-nothingness à la Radu Malfatti - tracks like "Torque on a Current Loop" and "Force on a Moving Charge" (I'll leave the scientific analogies to Richard Cochrane's elegant liner notes) are packed tight with notes and fairly fizz with energy. Not just energy though, but passion: the spits and gasps of Mats Gustafsson, supercharged aural squiggles of Thomas Lehn and fireworks of Roger Turner (to name but three other masters of the small gesture writ large) may make for thrilling on-the-edge music, but they at times lack a certain sense of emotional poise that makes "Momentum 2" such a mature and satisfying listen. It seems perverse to use the word "mainstream" with reference to a music as unashamedly marginal as improv, but the word does curiously spring to mind, if only because the overt lyricism of Brennan's piano, Wolfarth's deft stylings and Zimmerlin and Coleman's melodic interplay imbues the whole album with a sense of warmth often lacking in today's improvised music.

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SONIC CIRCUITS VIII
Various Artists
Innova 117
Another splendid sampler from the American Composers Forum's annual International Electronic Music Festival, whose diversity and richness would seem to indicate that electronic (computer, acousmatic.. call it what you will) music is alive and kicking. Philip Blackburn's eclectic selection includes a typically brilliant study of guitar sounds by "veteran" Francis Dhomont and juxtaposes it with Preston Wright's "Carpenter Ant Blues", a crazy agglomeration of (homemade?) percussives which probably kept its composer's ProTools busy for several months. Other objets trouvés include a Chinese fiddle (John Van Seggern's "Hyper Ehru"), Coke bottles (Michael Kosch's "Colatudes"), and an extended excerpt from Samuel Beckett's "Watt" dismantled with evident glee by David Jaggard in "Mary & Ann". While the novelty in Kosch's piece soon wears off, other works by Katherine Gordon, Malte Steiner and Philip Mantione are austerely impressive, and the whole collection hangs together coherently and successfully.

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