February News 2002 New Releases
reviewed by Dan Warburton:
On Cadence: Ursel Schlicht / Implicate Order
CD ROM review: DomUSticks IDEOTRONs
Seth Misterka, THE DEMON
On Rectangle: MOSQ
On hat[now]ART: Morton Feldman, STRING QUARTET (II)
On Ayler: Hamid Drake & Assif Tsahar
On Potlatch: Sophie Agnel, Lionel Marchetti, Jérôme Noetinger / Phosphor
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Bauer / Gumpert / Petrowsky / Sommer

Intakt 069

Recorded and originally released in the joyful chaos that was Berlin in 1990, this magnificent album promptly became about as hard to find as the Wall, and its reissue on Intakt is cause for celebration. Trombonist Conrad Bauer, pianist Ulrich Gumpert, saxophonist / clarinettist / flutist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and drummer Günter Sommer first played together back in 1973 under the name Synopsis (also the title of the album's first track), adopting the somewhat ironic (shades of the politburo) "Zentralquartett" moniker eleven years later. Muscular and optimistic, the music, in the absence of a bass player, is grounded in Gumpert's solid left hand, leaving his right free to add splashes of township harmony worthy of Dollar Brand or Chris McGregor. The churchy harmonies of Protestant hymns return home to roost after hundreds of years in the African sunshine, Sommer whoops and hollers behind his kit and the horns blast out joyfully, but for all its ebullience this is a polished and crafted document. Another fine album recorded in East Germany comes to mind: the Ganelin Trio's 1978 debut on Leo (LR 102) - and like that group, the Zentralquartett knew just how to smash down the barriers that supposedly make free jazz "difficult" listening. As history has shown, walls can come down a hell of a sight faster than it takes to put them up. Check this out!

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Ursel Schlicht / Implicate Order
Cadence CJR 1140

This live set was recorded in March 2001 in the German provincial town of Kassel, where, along with fellow locals Hans Tammen on guitar and reed player Martin Speicher, pianist Ursel Schlicht started her musical career a decade or so ago before moving to the US in 1994 (her Statements Quintet album "The Cats Pyjamas" (Leo Lab 054) is well worth checking out). Implicate Order (the name is culled from physicist David Bohm, referring to "that which cannot be seen but is ultimately responsible for seemingly random small behaviours [sic]") is Schlicht's current quartet with trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Ken Filiano and Lou Grassi on drums. Martin Speicher (whose "Erdtöne - Notation des Lots" on Hybrid must be one of the most criminally neglected masterpieces of recent times) guests on alto sax on the opening "Sound and Fury", and if his opening duet with Swell doesn't blow you away, just you wait for his solo later in the track. While Swell is his usual impressive craggy self, Filiano and Grassi are at their best in the faster tracks, where their tight free-bop energy propels the music onwards and upwards (Filiano also contributes a well-crafted six-and-a-half minute solo to introduce the title track, but his interventions on the final "Tacit Agreement" are a little too busy for my taste). Schlicht's piano work can range from deft pointillism to actual bodily harm, yet her occasional right-hand octaves and Skriabinesque harmonies reveal a strong grounding in classical technique.

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Eltractor is a project from Quebec featuring David Michaud (audio) and Boris Firquet (video), along with guests Fabrice Montal, Jocelyn Robert, Marc Tremblay and Martin Meilleur. The aptly-named "Elradio" features music sampled from a wide range of sources, including what sounds like washing machines, cheap synths, TV ("La caillette", "Est plat"), opera ("Le temps qui passe"), piano (prepared and otherwise) and, it seems, ducks ("Canard Tech"), before winding down with a cheesy "Blues du bonheur". It's entertaining and well-crafted but somewhat scattered stylistically, whereas the added visual dimension on offer on the CDROM, featuring four extended videos, is more compelling (if you can find your way in by clicking on the right spot of the opening mesmerising op-art loop, that is). The visuals are fast-moving (probably to be avoided if you're suffering from mild epilepsy or a Mach-5 hangover), intercutting shots of electronic circuitry, eye surgery (not for the squeamish), some sort of hi-tech production line and bats (and rats?) hunting and devouring their prey, and the accompanying music is more continuous and techno-referenced. It all gels well, and though not quite as pure and austere as Ryoji Ikeda's work, it could be just as devastating on the big screen. As it is, the CDROM format is literally in your face and exhausting after a while - deliberately so, it seems.

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Seth Misterka

Newsonic 25

Very much in the post-Naked City tradition, "The Demon" consists of ten short, tight, largely composed slabs of punky noise and attitude (only 27 minutes in all) complete with racy rock titles like "Nerd Machine", "Crack Addict Mechanic" and "Land of the Giant Zorns" (indeed!) and bashing, binary rhythmics that have more in common with hardcore than jazz (whatever that is these days). Take the central orgasmic accelerando of "JARDM" (the album's longest track at 6'26"), replace Pete Cafarella's raw and decidedly ugly synth with a fuzzed out electric guitar, add some bleak, demented vocals and - presto: The Rollins Band! There are very few solos as such (a few squeals and a spat of vicious synth scribbling on "Crack Addict Mechanic") and little recourse to studio gadgetry (a touch of reverb on Misterka's horn in "JARDM"), and Nate Smith uses the constituent elements of his drum kit as distinct instruments in their own right rather than provide normal drumming-as-accompaniment, an approach closer to Shannon Jackson's raw propulsion of his Decoding Society than to Joey Baron's slick post-modern virtuosity (that said, "Nerd Machine" kicks off with a cheeky surf punk groove that would probably appeal to the Giant Zorn himself). One look at Misterka's mug shot on the cover and you know this one isn't for the faint-hearted.

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Rectangle REC-UEE1

It seems surnames are out these days (maybe the influence of hiphop) - MOSQ is a four-piece outfit consisting of erik m (capital letters are out too) on live sampling and turntables, Akosh S. on tenor and soprano saxes, Quentin Rollet (Q) on alto, and Charlie O. on Hammond organ, none of whom - with the possible exception of erik m - are bona fide card-carrying improvising musicians. Charles Mingus (or Charlie M, as the Art Ensemble called him), in a famous tirade against what he saw as the chaotic free-for-all of avant-garde jazz, suggested that the likes of Duke and Clark Terry could, if they put their minds to it, come up with a free jazz album that would blow the young iconoclasts of the New Thing clean out of the water. The sonorities of Charlie O's organ make a welcome change from piano bashing à la Fred V.H. or the 100mph crazy synth squiggling of Thomas L., and erik m's choice of material is perfect for the occasion (calling it improv where he's concerned is slightly misleading, as he's known for preparing his performances well in advance). Liberated from the constraints of the tight funk he excels at, Akosh S. (the "S" stands for Szeleveny, which might explain his preference for that abbreviation) lets his imagination and his technical excellence run wild, with Quentin Rollet in hot pursuit. This is a much-needed blast of fresh air in the increasingly stuffy closed shop that improvised music has become over recent years, and certainly makes a change from the latest offerings from Derek B. and Evan P.

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Morton Feldman
hat[now]ART 4-144 (4CD)

The score of Morton Feldman's second string quartet (1983) consists of 124 pages of music marked at a tempo of quarter-note 63-66, which if strictly adhered to, means that a performance of the work lasts approximately four and three quarter hours. In practice, Feldman was not overly strict regarding tempo, often approving of performances at slower tempi providing that the execution of the music was clear and in accordance with the notation. Here the Ives Ensemble play the score by the book, the four CDs clocking in at 4 hours 42 minutes and 35 seconds. (Questions of tempo are nothing new of course - they've always been a subject of heated debate amongst interpreters of classical music, and not only works written before the invention of the metronome: compare the available recordings of Bartok's "Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta", or, to take an extreme example, Otto Klemperer's reading of Beethoven's Fifth, nearly twice as long as Carlos Kleiber's.) However long it lasts, it's LONG: in the canon of Western classical music, works longer than one and a half hours are rare - especially so for a string quartet. This of course doesn't include opera, whose social conventions and practical performance considerations (set and costume changes) allow the public to stretch their legs and even partake of a light meal between acts; chamber music, on the other hand, is normally played through from beginning to end, with occasional slight pauses between movements.
On August 12th 1984 I travelled down to London for the Kronos Quartet's UK premiere of Feldman's second quartet, which took place in the rather plush surroundings of the Reform Club off Pall Mall. All four musicians were playing from large folio copies of the full score, and as the continuous nature of the music precluded them from turning pages themselves, each had an assistant seated close by. These page turners sat demurely beside the performers until the time came to remove the page, at which point all four stood together and very gently removed the sheet of music, in a kind of slowmotion ballet. I remember this as being mildly entertaining for about half an hour, but it became progressively more irritating, the standing and sitting every ten minutes or so imposing a kind of structure to the performance that didn't necessarily correspond to the unfolding of the music itself. I decided to listen eyes closed. After an hour and a half or so, the extraneous noises of spectators (shifting in their seats, rustling their programs, coughing, wheezing, unwrapping boiled sweets, even trying to sneak out of the room without being heard) became a nuisance. I began to wonder if, after all, I might appreciate this music more if I could listen to it in the peace and quiet (and comfort) of my own home. This led me inevitably to question why I'd come to see the concert in the first place (notice "see" rather than "hear": we tend to say "I went to see the Kronos Quartet last night" than "I went to hear.." - and hardly ever "I went to listen to.."), since there was very little to look at and an annoying peripheral buzz and crackle of ambient noise which was interfering with my listening. My concentration became increasingly impaired and I began to wonder if I should stay the full five hours myself: what good would it do? In one sense, walking out was chickening out: there was a certain macho pleasure to be had, perhaps, in being able to tell one's friends: "Yeah, I sat through all five hours of Feldman's quartet.." (a heroic cultural endurance test worthy of friends' admiration, like "I saw the whole Wagner Ring cycle at Bayreuth" or "I saw all eight hours of Warhol's 'Empire'" or "I've read Proust.."). But, then again, notice those words "sat through" - already in my mind there was the idea that I ought to go through with this, that it was somehow character-building or "good" for me, like carrot juice or organic pasta. I began to feel distinctly uneasy - surely Feldman hadn't intended his audience to suffer such anguish! (Not only the listeners either: Kronos' first violinist David Harrington ended up with serious backache..) If I left before the end, could I say with any justification that I had truly experienced the work? Of course, the simple answer to that was "no", in that there would obviously be things later in the piece that I would not hear if I crept out. Music, unlike painting, exists in time - it lasts. Even so, I was drawn to think of Guston and Rothko, whose work and aesthetics Feldman openly admired and was influenced by - do you get more (more what, I don't know) out of Rothko if you stare at it for an hour than if you look at it for five minutes? Ultimately, a more mundane consideration prompted my eventual decision to leave - after three and a quarter hours - if I stayed to the bitter end (another unfortunate but revealing expression) I'd have to take the late mail train back home from Liverpool Street and would arrive in the middle of the night after a boneshaking two and half hours in a draughty compartment reeking of diesel, whereas in leaving when I did I could catch the comfortable new train from Kings Cross Station and be home in just over an hour. Nevertheless, I felt extremely guilty as I crept out onto the bustling streets of the West End. Even recalling it now, I still do.
That was eighteen years ago. Compact discs hadn't made it to the market yet, and what little I had of Feldman's music available on record was limited to a handful of already old crackly vinyls, whose surface imperfections annoyed me intensely (though I was - and still am - happy to accept them in a piece by Cage, these pops and scratches bothered me when I listened to Feldman: to this day, on relistening to my old vinyl copy of "False Relationships and the Extended Ending" (CRI SD 276) I know exactly when the next thunk is due). Funnily enough, it's almost as if Feldman's late long works were written with the CD format in mind. Most fit comfortably on one disc - the 1979 "String Quartet", 1980's "Trio", the piano pieces "Triadic Memories" and "For Bunita Marcus", and the final wonderful "For Samuel Beckett", to name but a few - and in the case of the longer works ("Crippled Symmetry", "Patterns in a Chromatic Field", "For Philip Guston", "For Christian Wolff"..) there's usually a convenient spot to break without having to resort to a fadeout. Hence perhaps the relative proliferation of Feldman recordings over recent years: almost all his post 1979 works are not only in print, but several ("For John Cage", "Triadic Memories", even the monster "For Philip Guston") are available in several different versions. Agonising dilemma: should I play Hildegard Kleeb's or John Tilbury's recording of "For Bunita Marcus" this time (both are excellent)? The Ives Ensemble's recording of "String Quartet (II)" won't be alone for long either: apparently Mode Records will shortly be releasing a six-hour version of the piece played by the Flux Quartet. Feldman collectors rejoice!
Even so, now that the second quartet is finally available on disc, the question remains: how are we to listen to it? Should we force ourselves to simulate a performance situation and play the work from beginning to end, or is it OK to take a break between CDs, if only to make a cup of coffee or go for a pee? (Of course, if you've bought the CDs you're free to listen to it how you want - as I write this it's playing along behind me, which of course means I'm probably not devoting enough attention to it. So be it..) Choosing the first option presents us with a problem of time management: assuming you're neither retired not unemployed, you'll probably only ever be able to listen to this piece in its entirety at weekends or in the evenings (take an early dinner, start at 8pm and you'll be in bed by 1am). Needless to say, you should either listen alone or with someone equally committed to the project who won't bother you with idle chitchat; kids should either be out or in bed; the phone should be unplugged, and answering machines, faxes and mobile phones disconnected. Think you can do it? Ask yourself this: how many times in your life have you had five hours totally free for uninterrupted listening? (For myself, I can tell you that I bought a copy of LaMonte Young's "Well Tuned Piano" (five hours of music) in 1987 and I've only ever been able to listen to it through three times. Three times in fifteen years.) Can you find those five hours now, or sometime soon? Good - now we're ready to listen.
Morton Feldman, though invariably associated with the New York School (which is often portrayed as being in direct ideological opposition to the post-War European serialists - Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono..), was very familiar with dodecaphonic music, through his studies with Stefan Wolpe and his knowledge of works by serialists as rigorous as Webern and Babbitt. Music theorists huddled over their set theory textbooks in American music faculties might be tempted to rub their hands with glee when confronted with late Feldman. The composer had a distinct preference for certain combinations of pitches (sets, if you will) and the opening ten or so minutes of the second quartet present, with meticulous clarity, a series of tetrachords which continue to permeate the whole work. It sounds almost like an exposition, in the classical sense of the word, a presentation of musical material that will subsequently be "developed" during the course of the piece. One of the tetrachords, four adjacent semitones ("4-1" in classical set theory terminology) is also the infamous B-A-C-H set, and there are also plenty of 4-2s, 4-6s, 4-11s, and 4-23s. It's relatively easy then for a sophomore music theory student to cook up a cool-looking chart and submit a cogent and convincing set theory analysis of the piece. But BEWARE: music theory's fondness for elegant lattice diagrams, Schenkergrams and the like totally fails to take into consideration the listening experience, the unfolding of the piece in time, and when we're dealing with something as long as the second quartet, a whole new set of perceptual problems comes into play. Very soon we realise that those first few minutes are not an exposition at all, because the whole piece carries on in the same vein. Feldman's oft-quoted remark is significant here: "Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale." Events follow each other in such a way that it soon becomes impossible to recall with accuracy what was happening just five minutes ago, let alone make generalisations about form as something that all listeners can agree upon. Set theory's often unstated but implicit intention, namely to demonstrate unambiguously a link between form at micro and macro level (a "great" piece - i.e. one easy to model using the tools of the theory - being one that can be neatly boiled down to a few basic motives which are shown to generate the whole work) won't get you very far with Morton Feldman. What are we to do, then? It seems pretty dumb to describe what's going on here ("the eight-note melody that appears after thirteen or so minutes reoccurs at X, Y, Z minutes..") since it's perfectly clear from one moment to the next what's happening on the surface of the music but also because the work's scale and the unique circumstances of each listener's situation, the possibility of varying degrees of concentration on his/her part ("If your mind wanders, let it" - Cage), mean that the piece will be different for each and every one of us. All I can do is commend the Ives Ensemble on their fantastic playing (their attention to details of tuning, dynamics and timbre is exemplary) and Art Lange on his intelligent and informative liner notes. There remains a question as to whether anyone coming to Feldman's late works for the first time is better off buying this 4-CD set or four other pieces on individual CDs - there is after all an extraordinary diversity in the late pieces: the first quartet (1979) and the later "Piano and String Quartet" (1985) could almost be the work of two different composers. All I can say is you're unlikely to hear this piece very often in concert (and even if you're lucky enough to have the opportunity, you may, like me, not fully appreciate it, even regret it), so this fabulous recording is the best chance you'll have to plunge into the world of Morton Feldman's, as Harrison Birtwistle memorably described it, poetic extremism.

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Hamid Drake & Assif Tsahar
Ayler AYLCD 024

John Voight's remark in the notes that Hamid Drake "has become the drummer in Free Jazz" is a bit odd considering he spends most of his time here swinging his dreadlocks off - we're closer to Ed Blackwell and Dannie Richmond than Sunny Murray and Milford Graves. Assif Tsahar gets busy, but ends up sounding like everybody except himself: there are flashes of Coltrane, Ayler and Dolphy (especially on the bass clarinet, of course), but also Brötzmann, Evan Parker and even John Butcher (the creaking multiphonics which open "Soul Bodies"). When it all comes together he really takes off, but we have to wait until half way through the last track, "Heart's Mind" for it to happen. The second piece, "Clay Dancers", consists of Drake singing in Arabic and accompanying himself on the frame drum, while Tsahar noodles around on bass clarinet behind; though evidently appreciated by the crowd at the Old Office where this set was recorded live during Vision 2001, it's a rather uneventful seventeen minutes - if I want Sufi chanting I prefer to listen to Nusrat: I want Hamid Drake to play drums! As more material seems to have been recorded (the title leads us to assume that there is a Volume 2 in the offing), I'm left wondering why "Clay Dancers" wasn't replaced with a stronger track - presumably Hamid wanted it that way, though I don't know whether he approved of his name being spelled "Hammid" on the album cover.

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Potlatch Releases
Sophie Agnel / Lionel Marchetti / Jérôme Noetinger
Potlatch P401
Potlatch P501

Electronics whiz Lionel Marchetti has been on a roll for a year or so, judging from a handful of outstanding albums both solo ("Knud.." on Intransitive, "Portrait d'un Glacier" and "Sirrus" on Ground Fault) and in collaboration with his long-time sparring partner Jérôme Noetinger (especially the excellent "Double_Wash" on Grob with Voice Crack), who also "plays" microphones, speakers, Revox machines and various amplified sound-producing objects. On "Rouge Gris Bruit" ("Red Grey Noise") they're joined by pianist Sophie Agnel for an extended three-part suite, recorded in the studios at Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy but mastered and "reorganised" by Marchetti. This might explain the sophistication of some of the electronic treatments of the piano tracks - or maybe those were the bits recorded live.. Hard to say: it's standard practice for improvising musicians to clean up, edit and fine-tune recordings on computer these days. I suspect there's a good deal of "reorganisation" (composition, for the want of a better word) involved here, since the end product is surprisingly coherent and colourful. AMM's John Tilbury inevitably comes to mind upon hearing Agnel's delicate and subtle piano preparations, and so, listening to the slow-moving electronic grit, does that group's Keith Rowe, a friend and frequent partner of Noetinger's.
The AMM philosophy of searching for the sound in performance - thereby totally dispensing with the notion of repertoire - has become something of an aesthetic benchmark for improvised music at the beginning of the new century (it's also an easy excuse for lazy musicians not to practice individually - let alone rehearse - and release dozens of albums of dross). The music of Phosphor, an eight-piece Berlin Reductionist All Star line-up (Axel Dörner, Annette Krebs, Andrea Neumann, Burkhard Beins, Ignaz Schick..) is a fascinating milestone along the road German improvised music has travelled since the early days of FMP. It's an interesting assemblage of sonic rubble but an intensely problematic one: traditional notions of interaction, virtuosity and structure seem at times to have gone out of a window thrown wide open to reveal a view out onto a stark and desolate landscape. Though not wishing to appear churlish or old-fashioned (especially since my own activities as a performer often lead me into the selfsame musical territory), it somehow seems too easy to append pseudo-intellectual liner notes and pass this music off as some kind of illustration of or comment on the post-modern, post-minimal, post-everydamnthing culture we find ourselves in. A more honest approach would seem to be to let the music speak for itself and leave listeners free to come to their own conclusions, my own being that I prefer Beins and Schick in the group Perlonex (I recommend their two excellent albums on Zarek), Neumann and Krebs as a duo ("Rotophormen" on Charhizma) and Dörner either solo ("Trumpet" on A Bruit Secret) or in the outstanding trio with Xavier Charles and John Butcher ("The Contest of Pleasures", also on Potlatch).

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Copyright 2002 by Paris Transatlantic