July News 2001 New Releases
reviewed by Dan Warburton:
Quatuor Accorde
Adam Sonderberg
Marilyn Nonken
Pandelis Karayorgis
Rene Bertholo
John Butcher
Daevid Allen
Lionel Marchetti; John Hudak, Jason Lescalleet
Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co.
Sten Sandell, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Michael Zerang
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Quatuor Accorde

Emanem 4050

"Accorder" is French for "tune up", but the group name also puns on the French for "string quartet" (quatuor à cordes). This is however not a traditional classical two-violin quartet line up, consisting of one of each of the orchestral stringed instruments - violin (Phil Durrant), viola (Charlotte Hug), cello (Mark Wastell) and bass (Tony Wren) - but the music they create has more in common with the contemporary string repertoire than with much jazz-inflected (at least in terms of instrumentation) free improvisation. The quartet's nine tracks - three of which were recorded live in the church of St. Michael and All Angels in London, hence perhaps the album title - are interspersed with three brief but extraordinary bass solos from Wren, whom Mark Wastell apparently tempted out of "semi-retirement in the mid-nineties". On the strength of this solo work alone, one wonders why Wren ever chose to stop playing (if choose he did): his luscious overtone-rich bass playing is reminiscent of Joëlle Léandre's Scelsi recordings, and his velvety, resonant pizzicato work makes a welcome change from the sometimes forced bravura of younger bassists.
The quartet tracks are simply mindblowing: each of these four musicians deploys a veritable arsenal of extended techniques that would be the envy of any classically-trained composer (if s/he could figure out a way to notate them), from supersoft silky harmonics ("The End of the Beginning") via col legno flutterings and skitterings across the body of instrument to gritty excessive bow pressure (forget the genteel musique spectrale and check this out for overtone content!) and ultra-high sul ponticello screeches ("Fermage"). This music maps a territory somewhere between the Webern "Bagatelles" and the quartets of Lachenmann and Spahlinger, but with the ferocious energy of early Boulez (and is as much a demonstration of what Fred Frith has called "virtuoso listening" as it is of virtuoso playing). Forget the Kronos Quartet (they don't need your money any more) and invest in this without delay.

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Adam Sonderberg /Sam Dellaria
Adam Sonderberg /Sam Dellaria
Adam Sonderberg / Boris Hauf
Adam Sonderberg /Sam Dellaria
Adam Sonderberg

The advent of DAT, ProTools and CD-burners has led many musicians to bypass traditional labels large and small and release their work in limited editions on CDR. (This is especially true of those on the cutting edge of avant-garde who have a hard time selling more than a hundred or so copies anyway, and therefore experience considerable difficulty persuading even bijou new music labels to take the plunge and release albums for them.) Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages involved with releasing your stuff on CDR: on the plus side, you don't find yourself sitting on crates of unsold CDs for months on end, and you know exactly who's ended up with the stuff. The flipside is people won't run across a copy in Tower Records, and you'll have to do without those hefty royalty checks from the likes of BMI (dreadful privation: in five years, my own jackpot from such august bodies hasn't amounted to much more than what it would cost to buy the complete Captain Beefheart discography). CDRs are also rather fragile, and won’t withstand being frisbeed across the room by energetic two-year-olds (I speak from experience).
Chicago-based Adam Sonderberg has weighed up the pros and cons, and opted for CDRs. "Signal Hill" was"performed, recorded and assembled" by Sonderberg and Sam Dellaria in 1998, and consists of seven untitled tracks that run the gamut from what’s known in the trade as "cracked everyday electronics" (Sonderberg is a big Voice Crack fan) to Sun City Girls-style garage percussion to Farmers Manual-style glitchorama complete with Adam's delightful guitar work (imagine across between Parachute-era Eugene Chadbourne and late Morton Feldman... difficult, eh?). His duos with Vienna-based saxophonist Boris Hauf (mainman of the group Efzeg) are remarkably fresh and concise ("Action 12" clocks in at just three seconds and thereby beats several cuts on Scott Rosenberg’s One Liners to become the shortest track I now have in my collection). "Canned Goods I and II" are one-liners in themselves, beautiful Zen-drawings in sound, mercifully far from the spit and bluster that has become the linguafranca of improvised music these days.
Sonderberg himself admits that "64 Squares", a kind of slow-motion game of chess wired for sound, is a "slow burner".. Let's just say that if your idea of music includes sitting in your kitchen late at night listening to the fridge, or wandering across acres of barren Icelandic tundra with a metal detector in search of buried Viking treasure, this may be right up your street. Certainly one of the most extreme recordings that's come my way recently (and I’ve got quite a few). "Public Dialogues II" - apparently a remix of 1998’s "Public Dialogues I", which I've yet to hear - kicks off with"When Tomorrow Hits", not the Mudhoney song but rather a deadly sine wave that’ll teach you once and for all not to put grandmother's crystal decanter on top of your speakers, and ends with the "hit single" (to quote Sonderberg), "Tradition", a 27-minute investigation of extreme frequency registers guaranteed to cause lasting structural damage to your apartment and kill your dog. Fans of extreme electronica might want to go for this one; my personal favorite is the duet album with Boris Hauf. Feel free though to email Adam Sonderberg at notmyhouse@hotmail.com and find out what other goodies he has on offer.

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Marilyn Nonken

CRI 877

At first glance (and with a title like "American Spiritual"), this looks like it could be a collection of vapid New Age gush: Marilyn Nonken, dressed in white, lies back dreamily in the deep grass looking like a cross between an ad for organic cereal and a Pre-Raphaelite virgin. As it turns out, she's just the pianist, and flipping the CD box over we see that the featured composers areabout as far from macrobiotic tree huggers as you can get: Milton Babbitt, Michael Finnissy (and younger composers Jeff Nichols and Jason Eckardt) write difficult, even thorny music, but Ms. Nonken manages to negotiate the brambles and thistles admirably without snagging that nice white dress. Maybe it's just the leafy, pastoral tone of the photographs, but she actually makes this ferociously difficult music sound fresh, alive and decidedly lyrical(not an adjective I normally associate with Babbitt). The "American Spiritual" of the title refers in fact to Finnissy's composition "North American Spirituals", the second installment in an enormous cycle of pieces called "The History of Photography In Sound", a twenty-minute Ivesian revisiting of four negro spirituals, which in typical Finnissy style takes the originals and covers them with a kind of dense polyphonic moss. It makes a welcome change to hear Finnissy's music played by someone other than Ian Pace - Nonken does an amazing job and articulates the work's complex structure with considerable aplomb. Equally impressive are Jeff Nichols' "Chelsea Square", whose surprising formal twists and turnsand exquisite feel for pitch recall Stefan Wolpe, and Jason Eckardt's "Echoes' White Veil", whose more muscular approach seems to owe more to Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill than to Brian Ferneyhough and James Dillon. Babbitt's recent "Allegro Penseroso" (Milton pays homage to Milton?) is, as one might expect, all craggy set theory and angular virtuosity, but once more Nonken manages to make this music sound just a little bit more human than Robert Miller did with his New World recording of "Post Partitions" and "Reflections" a few years back.
Returningto the presentational aspect, I imagine one is supposed to file this CD under "Nonken", as yet another example of performer commodification (thanks to Kronos for starting that trend). Quite apart from the booklet and tray photos, Marilyn also writes the liner notes and sticks in four black and white shots of herself for good measure (I'd have preferred recent photos of Babbitt and Finnissy myself, although they're probably not as nice to look at).I imagine the marketing people at CRI (that venerable label!) came to the conclusion that they'd shift more product with Marilyn's fresh-faced smile. Punters who unwittingly fork out $ expecting Wyndham Hill though are in for a real surprise.

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Pandelis Karayorgis / Nate McBride / Ken Vandermark

Boxholder BXH 018
Pandelis Karayorgis / Nate McBride
Cadence CJR 1115

I should say at the outset that Pandelis Karayorgis is one of my favorite pianists - he takes the instrument one step beyond the innovations of Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, while keeping the former's sense of space and the latter's dynamism and injecting a healthy dose of chromatic lyricism reminiscent of mid-60s Andrew Hill. Not surprise then that the opener on "No Such Thing", "Skid Into The Turn", is dedicated to Hill, even though it's not a Karayorgis original, but by Ken Vandermark. It's one of three KV originals here - the other two are dedicated to Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, which, coupled with Vandermark's increasing use of the clarinet seems to reflect a shift of interest on the reedman's part away from the titanic paint-stripping free blowers towards the more discreet yet no less innovatory horn players of yore. For my money though, Vandermark is still at his best when he really lets fly (the bass clarinet solo on "Disambiguation" sounds like a fantastic cross between Eric Dolphy and Charles Gayle); his cheeky tooty West Coasty moments are less captivating. Adding a drummer might have helped (both bassist Nate McBride and Karayorgis like bouncing off drums, witness their 1998 smoker on Leo with Randy Peterson).
The duo set on Cadence is more satisfying, giving freer rein to the plasticity of the compositions (one aptly entitled "Rubber Time"), and revealing more of the synergy between two musicians who have been gigging solidly together for nearly a decade. McBride plays less walking bass here than he does on the trio album and yet the whole thing swings like hell. The album's finest track is a sinewy exploration of Monk's "Criss Cross", fragments of which resonate and surface throughout the rest of the session, apparently recorded in the pianist's living room (though the cameo appearance by his dog Haris on "Eyes and Birds" isn't all that easy to spot - presumably the hound was as enthralled by the music as the musicians were).

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Rene Bertholo

SIRR.ecords sirr2002

Rene Bertholo was born in Portugal in 1935. As a visual artist in the 1960s he was associated with the KWY group, whose hand-crafted limited edition magazines blended experimentalism and offbeat humor, and there's a little of each in "Um Argentino no Deserto", his debut album (at age 66!). Since the mid 70s the artist has been building his own programmable synthesizers ("makinas"), which, if the photograph is anything to go by, is now a large assemblage of gadgetry including two 8-octave 2/3 voice "melodic units", a mini-sampler which plays bird song, frog croaks and other "sounds of nature", and some "percussion instruments". It seems pretty primitive, and so does the music it produces (Bertholo has wisely written himself an escape clause, calling it "Mosik", since he apparently has "doubts as to whether the sounds could be described as music.."). Some of it sounds like the weird customized lo-budget electronics used by the stranger post-Punk groups (Père Ubu's Allen Ravenstine comes to mind), but without the input of live musicians (not unsurprisingly, the most interesting pieces are those which involve some collaboration) what little sonic novelty there is soon wears off. There are hundreds of bright young laptop whizkids out there doing better stuff than this. Of course, they didn't build their Powerbooks themselves from plastic baby rattles and elastic bands, but that's hardly the point: if instruments themselves are now supposed to be more interesting than the music they're capable of producing, it's a pretty sorry situation.

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John Butcher / Dylan Van Der Schyff

Meniscus MNSCS 010
John Butcher / Derek Bailey / Rhodri Davies
Emanem 4049

British saxophonist John Butcher is fond of quoting guitarist Derek Bailey's line about improvisation as searching for material which is endlessly transformable - what he values in free playing is precisely that performing situation from where he feels the music "can go in any direction". This goes some way to explaining the strength of his recent solo work, but Butcher is also constantly on the move in search of playing partners, and in the past couple of years has gigged and recorded with practically almost every major improviser on the planet. These two new releases (the second on Emanem in as many months, and his second for Minneapolis-based Meniscus after 1999's excellent "Music on Seven Occasions") provide ample evidence of his extraordinary talents on tenor and soprano sax. The duos with percussionist Dylan van der Schyff were recorded in Vancouver in February 2000 and counterpoint the saxophonist's explorations of flutter-tonguing, multiphonics and extreme high register (on the soprano) playing with exquisitely placed percussion work. Van der Schyff (whose tight, forward propulsion on the kit recalls John Stevens on more than one occasion) is spot on in his choice of instrument, from the growls that end "Early Animation" to the Eddie Prevost-like bowed cymbal work that opens the eerie and teeth-grinding "Pool Lights" (team these two up with Sachiko M and there's enough to keep a dentist in business for a lifetime). Though it's open question on a few tracks whether Butcher is leading the expedition with van der Schyff following close behind (having played with Butcher myself, I can vouch for the rare pleasure of charging along the path he's hacked out of the undergrowth), it hardly matters when the music is as good as this. On "Recent Realism" they even nearly swing.
Derek Bailey is well known for not letting himself be led down someone else's path (witness the extraordinary "Outcome" on Potlatch, where he and Steve Lacy coexist amiably for over an hour without once treading on each other's toes), and the two extended duos with Butcher recorded in the "exceedingly sweaty" Vortex club (recorded just six weeks after the Vancouver date discussed above) are fine examples of the aforementioned multi-directionality both musicians value so highly. Maybe it's because he's been hanging out with Calvin Weston and Jamaladeen Tacuma recently, but I'd swear Bailey is positively funky at times on "High Vortex". Harpist Rhodri Davies brings a more sermonly feel (his Welsh track titles having religious connotations) to the three tracks recorded St. Michael and All Angels, both musicians exploring the lofty spaces of the acoustic to great advantage. If you're a Butcher enthusiast, life must be getting very expensive, since everything he's released in the past two years has been top notch. And I won't make you feel any better by telling you there's plenty more to come.

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Daevid Allen

Daevid's U Of Errors 2: e2 x 10 = tenure
InnerSPACE 7715

"If you are changing.. how do you know who you are?" sings the original Pataphysical Teapot himself, Daevid Allen, on this, his "sophomore" album with his San Francisco-based University Of Errors (their first, "Money Doesn't Make It" was apparently recorded in just 24 hours in an all-night jam session in late 1998; this one apparently took them a week). Like certain leafy districts of San Francisco, Allen has always made a point of not changing, and still sounds as stoned immaculate as on his early mythic outings with Soft Machine and Gong. Many of his faculty members have been recruited from the Mushroom organization, including drummer Patrick O'Hearn (billed as Pat Thomas: not to be confused with the English keyboard improviser), trying bravely to do his best Jaki Leibezeit impression, despite a barrage of rather outdated reverb effects. Though there are some effective and spooky vocal treatments on "Ocean Motha", the album as a whole sounds weighed down with guitars, which, in conjunction with somewhat unimaginative material (most of the tracks are one or two-chord jams, happily stuck in Allen's beloved Lydian mode) leaves the listener feeling as worn out as Allen's voice by the time it's all over. The central span of songs drifts into a weird adaptation of lines from W.B. Yeats' "Lake Isle of Innesfree", delivered by Allen in a bizarre accent dredged up from somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea (part Welsh, part Irish, part Scottish), after which the gleeful trash of "Pinky's Party Song" with its Frippy guitars sounds somewhat forced. This is Allen's first US band since New York Gong in 1979, but compared to the knockout punch of their album "About Time" (driven on by the demonic rhythm section of Bill Laswell and Fred Maher), the sophomores at the U of Errors have a lot of credit hours to do if they ever intend to graduate. Then again, as Prof. Allen sings, "One man's truth is another man's lie."

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Lionel Marchetti

Intransitive INT 014
John Hudak / Jason Lescalleet
Intransitive INT 016

After two mini-CDs for Metamkine's "Cinema for the Ear" label and a split CD with Ralf Wehowsky, "Knud.." is Lionel Marchetti's first full-length solo release, and an ambitious one at that: an "intricate tape-music exploration of Shamanism and ecstatic states of mind", its collage of musics from all over the world invites comparison with three major works of the genre, Stockhausen's "Telemusik" (1966) and "Hymnen" (1967), and Jean-Claude Eloy's "Shanti" (1973). While Stockhausen incorporated his pan-musical quotations into typically strict formal architectures - ultra-condensed in "Telemusik", extended and heroic in "Hymnen" - Marchetti, like Eloy, leaves more room for his field recordings to breathe. An airplane soars above in a cloudless sky while distant choirs intone sacred texts, all as if heard through a badly-tuned radio buried somewhere in deep undergrowth.. It's a fascinating and - because of the mystic, even holy, nature of the recordings - intense listen, but one that never quite divorces itself from the image we inevitably conjure up of these extraordinary musicians from all over the world. Whereas Stockhausen characteristically elevated himself to the status of meta-shaman ("Telemusik" was, after all, nothing less than a dream in which all the musics of the world became his), Marchetti here plays the meta-DJ, the perfect metaphor - deconstructed, ironic - for the epoch; in standing back from his material rather than trying to possess it totally, he lets its force come through unhindered. Bach, baby talk, aborigines and Speak'n'Spell machines all somehow fit in, though the ending (abrupt cut off followed by silent track followed by a cough) is somewhat puzzling.
While Marchetti's album is nothing less than planetary in its scope, Jason Lescalleet and John Hudak's "Figure 2" limits itself to exploring the acoustic Lindsay Chapel of the First Church Congregational in Cambridge Massachusetts, where the two sound artists took refuge from "the first blizzard of the season" in January 2000. Though on first listening it may sound as if there's not much going on (be careful not to leave valuable glass objects on top of your speakers, as I did), this delicate dronescape becomes progressively more captivating as it goes on, Lescalleet's back-to-analog research into tape-loops and cheap hi-fi somehow as authentic as the old church itself. The music breathes naturally throughout, from dense organ-like rumbles via waves of crashing cymbals to groans, bells, gongs and whistles. Recently Lescalleet described with loving precision how he patiently went about recording the sound of falling snow, for a future project with Francisco Lopez. Unlike much of Lopez's music though, there's a distinctly human dimension to "Figure 2"; it may not always be user-friendly, but it is reassuringly real, like an old church in a blizzard.

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Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Co.

Cuneiform Rune 147

Now that Charlemagne Palestine has been thoroughly rediscovered, and more "extreme" minimalists such as Phill Niblock are beginning to get the attention the attention they so richly deserve, it's good to remember that minimalism also produced some more user-friendly music back in the mid-70s. David Borden's Mother Mallard outfit has long been overlooked and consigned to a dusty corner of ProgRock (that's what comes perhaps of being on Cuneiform), and this overdue reissue of 1976's "Like A Duck To Water" is most welcome. Mother Mallard's line-up back then featured Borden, Steve Drews and Judy Borscher (all on keyboards, mostly Moogs.. check out the vintage photo of the group in the CD booklet) and this reissue includes no less than four previously unreleased pieces, three by Drews. As the group has always been perceived as Borden's brainchild, it's interesting to check out Drews' work for a change: though his "Harpsichord Truck" is nothing more than a bit of poppy fluff, "Theme from After the Fall" (written for a production of Arthur Miller's play at Cornell, where the Mallard has been roosting for over a quarter of a century) is a sensitive and delicately etched ballad, and "Downtown" is a real gem of exquisitely scored intricate metrical play. Elsewhere those Moogs can tend to sound a bit thick and soupy (on Drews' "Oleo Strut" and Borden's "C-A-G-E Part II"), but their brighter timbres are used to great effect on Drews' "Waterwheel" - the enhanced CD also includes a five-minute film of the group playing the piece to an enthusiastic public. Borden's "All Set", inspired by Frank Stella and based on his name, is a wacky polyrhythmic jam, complete with pitch bends and synthesized cymbal splashes. This is 1976, remember: Phil Glass is just settling down into the yawningly regular chord-sequences of his post-Einstein music, Steve Reich's polishing the 6/4 surfaces of "Music for 18 Musicians", and here's Borden screwing it all up with irregular meters (fives, sevens, seventeens) and having a ball in the process. Fun stuff.

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Sten Sandell / Fred Lonberg-Holm / Michael Zerang

Nuscope CD 1009

As part of the ongoing "exchange program" between Chicago and Stockholm, Swedish pianist Sten Sandell was in the Windy City in April 1998 to record nine pieces (entitled Disappeared - Day One, Two etc., though the music was recorded on one day) with one of the tightest double acts in the business, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and percussionist Michael Zerang. Adding a third member to an existing (and almost telepathic) duo certainly adds an element of danger, and Sten Sandell's feeling for interval and gesture - and a fondness for extreme registers - pushes Fred and Michael closer to the soundworld of European contemporary music than they normally go (talking of which, check out Sandell's fabulous Boulezian fireworks on Sven-Ake Johansson's "Six Little Pieces" on hatOLOGY), while studiously avoiding flashy mannerism. His occasional vocals, low Phil Minton-at-16rpm guttural rumblings, are less convincing - maybe he should team up with Peter Kowald, who's also given to this kind of sub-bass throat culture - but all in all the whole album really rocks, even if I can't see what John Corbett's liner notes are getting at.

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Copyright 2001 by Paris Transatlantic