November News 2002
Special feature from the PNMR archives!
Our Exclusive Interview with Harrison Birtwistle, now on-line.
Reviews by Dan Warburton:
Myles Boisen
On Rastascan: John Butcher / Miya Masaoka / Gino Robair
Gianni Gebbia
On Rossbin: Greg Kelley
On Roaratorio: The Music Ensemble
On Konkurrent: Sonic Youth / ICP / The Ex : In the Fishtank
New releases from Fred Van Hove
Simon H. Fell
Jeth Rollins Odom: The Absence of Theory
Delay Makes Me Nervous / Strewth!
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Myles Boisen

Wiggle Biscuit WB 005

"An urge to treat studio improvisation as a plastic (rather than a strictly documentary) medium presented itself and began to germinate upon returning to the studio in January 1996," writes Myles Boisen of "Scrambledisc", a three-movement work lasting just under 42 minutes, featuring the guitars of Mark Schifferli, John Shiurba and Boisen himself, percussionists Scott Amendola, Elliot Kavee and Gino Robair, Klaus Floride [sic] on bass and Miguel Frasconi on sampler, followed by "Accidental Dialects", a suite of seven appendixes, as it were, to the principal text of "Scrambledisc" which uses its outtakes (that should not be taken to mean material of inferior quality: far from it). The idea of crafting an album by superimposing separate improvisations or extracts thereof is a fresh and interesting way to get out of the perennial "composition or improvisation" dilemma, either by having one musician record on top of another’s tapes (Derek Bailey's two duo projects with Han Bennink, and his 1998 Bingo album "Plays Back") or by passing the "raw material" to one (or more) composer(s) to organise (cf. Werner Dafeldecker and Christian Mühlbacher's 1997 "Diphtongs" on Durian). Boisen's approach belongs to the latter category. At times reflective and spacious ("Raindrops In That Birch"), at times dense and clattering ("Innumerable Diamonds"), it's a rewarding, if challenging, listen. Thanks to the multitude of guitars, it's also a lot closer in sound to rock than much recent West Coast improvisation, even though, despite the input of their ex-bassist, it certainly ain't Dead Kennedys..

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John Butcher / Miya Masaoka / Gino Robair
482 Music 482-1013
Steve Norton / Tom Plsek / Gino Robair
Rastascan BRD 038

Despite the hi-tech concept of the "laser koto" (Miya Masaoka takes the venerable Japanese instrument into the 21st century via MIDI), the traditional 21-string instrument and its tuning system is also happily still in evidence, sounding at times like a viol consort ("A Wing") or a harp ("Glyph"), and providing saxophonist John Butcher with plenty of opportunities to show us that he's still got a fabulous ear for pitch (especially on "Cae"), even though he's perhaps best known these days for pushing his instruments into areas of extended technique. The range of sonorities these three musicians manage to come up with is extraordinary - Gino Robair's extended kit includes a "faux dax" and various bowed and motorised contraptions, and his quietly shimmering cymbals and Butcher's hazy multiphonics fuse perfectly on "Covert" to create an exquisite textural backdrop for Masaoka's gentle high register plucking to dance in front of. Weird and wonderful sounds for their own sake don't guarantee great improvisation, though - what makes these twelve pieces so convincing is not their diversity of timbre, but rather the satisfying and strong sense of structure that comes from a shared commitment to virtuoso playing and listening.
Robair is also very much in action on "Firehouse Futurities", along with Steve Norton on saxophones and clarinets and trombonist Tom Plsek. Recorded back in 1995, three of the four tracks were broadcast live on WMFO, Medford MA (the album is co-produced by local label Tautology), while "She recalled his elaborate shine internal supply, consumer watchdogs agree" is, as its title might imply, a cadavre exquis - Robair recorded eighteen minutes of percussion in California, and then mailed the tape to Massachusetts, where Plsek recorded his contribution listening to Robair's music through headphones, while Norton played along with Plsek (unable to hear the pre-recorded percussion). Such a recording process guarantees linearity and organic development, but necessarily excludes the possibility of feedback (Plsek not being able to respond directly to Norton, and Robair to neither wind player). Intriguingly, the 38 minute live track which closes the album sounds surprisingly similar - American improvisers often allow themselves to stretch out more than their European counterparts - but the other two pieces, each barely two minutes in duration, are perfectly concise examples of the turn-on-a-dime reactions that makes good improvised music such a thrill.

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Gianni Gebbia

Stereosupremo sts0008 / Rastascan RRD047

There's no shortage of good solo saxophone albums around, but this offering from Gianni Gebbia (on alto and sopranino) presents a novel idea: each of its twenty-two tracks (ranging in duration from 0'27" to 5'43") is named after one of the tarot cards from the XXII arcana major, and by playing the CD in shuffle mode you can, if so inclined, extrapolate a single-card prediction. Personally, I can't even understand solitaire, so I'll pass on the crystal ball gazing, but the random play technique throws up some intriguing juxtapositions between these diverse tracks. Gebbia references several styles and concepts of saxophony, from Roland Kirk (two horns in one mouth) to Mats Gustafsson (breathy key clicks) via John Butcher (intricate multiphonics) and Jon Gibson (fluid repetition), orbiting periodically around planet Braxton (fuzzy circular breathing, agile sopranino lines..). Indeed, the extended techniques are so impressive and the range of experiences so wide that it's sometimes rather difficult to locate Gianni Gebbia himself. Of course, we can ask the cards to provide a profile by listening to the whole album again, which is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

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Greg Kelley

Rossbin RS 006

This long-awaited follow-up to Greg Kelley's extraordinary solo album on Meniscus (whatever happened to Meniscus?) consists of one 36'48" track, over half of which is a rich, seemingly static drone. (It isn't static at all, in fact.) Whereas the earlier album was entitled merely "Trumpet", Kelley has this time opted for a quotation from Terence Mallick's movie, "The Thin Red Line". Interpret that as you will, but it's clear from the opening clatter of a contact mic jammed against the bell of the instrument that what we hear here doesn't just come out of a trumpet. Purists of the "no-added-effects-no-EQ etc" school may moan, but Kelley's bastardization of the recording medium to extend and amplify the sound of his horn (and various other objects that come into contact with it) is subtle and impressive. Jason Lescalleet, who collaborated with Kelley on last year's Erstwhile masterpiece "Forlorn Green", once more adds a dash of his spectacular hi-lofi mastering, overEQing ambient room sound; it's funny how sounds that traditionally set teeth grating and sweat pouring - dentist's drill, vacuum cleaner hum, heavy traffic rumble - are now welcome in new electroacoustic music, be it composed or improvised (this of course is both), and in context can be not only powerfully effective but genuinely beautiful. Expect a slew of releases featuring Kelley in the months to come: start here, turn the volume way up, unplug the phone so the neighbours can't reach you, and hit PLAY.

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Clean Feed CF007 CD

For "improvisation" read "free jazz": the work of this Portuguese quintet (three saxes, bass and drums) is closer to William Parker than Evan Parker, and explicitly references the free jazz tradition - track titles include "Blue Humans", "Song for Bluiett", "Conversation Piece" and even "This Is Our Music" - though in a manner neither naïve nor ironic. It's patently clear that altoist / baritonist Rodrigo Amado and his crew knew the standard rep very well, but, situated at the Western end of Europe in a country that's only now beginning to assert itself in improvised and electroacoustic avant-garde music (thanks to the fallout of Expo 98, the excellent August Lisbon jazz festival and the emergence of fine new labels such as Sirr and Headlights), they know just how to place the "tradition" in respectful quotation marks. Unlike, say, Ken Vandermark, they're not subject to the scrutiny (at times sceptical) of a national press that considers itself as the arbiter of taste, and are free to pay homage to Coleman (Ornette, but also Steve), the Art Ensemble and the WSQ without feeling any need to compete with them. This solid and well-recorded document of a concert the group gave in Lisbon's Tivoli Theatre in October 2000 (complete with, unfortunately, applause) is recommended listening for anyone curious to find out how free jazz and free improvisation are developing in Europe.

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The Music Ensemble

Roaratorio ROAR 03

Formed when percussionist Roger Baird met saxophonist Daniel Carter at Studio Rivbea in the early 1970s (they were later joined by bassist William Parker, violinist Billy Bang, trumpeters Malik Baraka and Dewey Johnson and bassists Herb Kahn and Earl Freeman), the Music Ensemble was, as Baird points out, "the only collective doing completely free improvised music in New York at the time" (between 1973 and 1975), which makes the release of this album an especially important event. Baird, using a Sony cassette recorder and 1-point stereo mic, recorded two concerts, at Brooklyn's Kingsborough College (April 24th 1974) and Holy Name School Auditorium, New York (15th February 1975). The line-up is Baird / Carter / Parker / Bang and Baraka, with Kahn on second bass at the Brooklyn gig, which yields one 31-minute track, "Stance Dance (Courage)", the remaining three coming from the later concert. Though one could easily moan about the recording quality (Baird's tablas are all but lost, especially in "Stance Dance"), Scott Hreha's mastering has helped highlight numerous tiny details which reveal the wonderful complicity between these musicians who, at the time, were playing together almost daily. Though hardly lacking in intensity - Bang is especially passionate on "Echoes Wind Transpire" - the music is refreshingly free of the high-octane combustibility that has, unfortunately, come be considered as the stereotype of free jazz (Marion Brown's grace and lyricism, Ornette Coleman's sense of melody and Steve Lacy's mastery of interval all too easily melt away in the burning heat of Ayler, Sanders and Wright..); even when Carter and Baird really get busy on "Radiatory Fineness", Malik Baraka's long unfolding lines and Bang's delicate trilling ornery continue imperturbably in the background. One wonders what Baraka might have gone on to do had he not messed up his life with drugs and died young; as for Bang, Carter and Parker, we know the story. If you're familiar with their later work, you owe it to yourself to check this one out, and if you're just starting in on post-ESP free jazz, you can't afford not to.

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Sonic Youth / ICP / The Ex

Konkurrent Fish9CD

The idea behind Konkurrent's In The Fishtank series is simple: take two bands, put them in the studio together and watch, or rather hear, the sparks fly. Whether they know each other or not doesn't seem to matter; as it happens, the friendship between Sonic Youth and The Ex goes way back to the early eighties. The vocalists (SY's Kim Gordon and Ex's Sok) sit this one out, the Sonics add William Winant on percussion, The Ex are represented by bassist Luc and guitarist Terrie, and to thicken the plot three bruisers from Misha Mengelberg's ICP are drafted in: Ab Baars on reeds, Wolter Wierbos on trombone and the irrepressible Han Bennink on drums. It's a joyous affair, ten unruly boys let loose in the attic with anything they can get their hands on, and doesn't overstay its welcome (total album duration just over half an hour). Though not exactly indispensable as albums go, it's certainly worth the price of admission if only for the final track "X", which features one of Luc's irresistible snaky bass grooves, power percussion and some funky-as-hell trombone from Wierbos. Elsewhere, it won't exactly win any prizes for subtlety, but it's a hell of a sight more fun to listen to than much contemporary improvised music.

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Fred Van Hove
Frank Gratkowski / Fred Van Hove / Tony Oxley
Nuscope CD 1012
Fred Van Hove / Ivo Vander Borght / Nikos Veliotis
WIMprozes CD 060801

Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove has been a towering presence in improvised music for three and a half decades, though he's still perhaps best known for his monumental bouts with titans Brötzmann and Bennink in the early 1970s. While those two are still slugging it out with anyone prepared to go the distance, these superbly recorded new offerings from Van Hove reveal a delicacy and lightness of touch often lacking in the traditionally muscular world of Northern European improv.
Despite its rather unimaginative title, the Nuscope outing, recorded in Germany in November 2000, is a jewel: Van Hove leaves Tony Oxley plenty of space (more than his other frequent pianist partner Cecil Taylor), and Oxley knows just how to move into it without getting in the way of the others. Clarinettist / altoist Frank Gratkowski is perfectly at home in their company. His mastery of interval, Van Hove's harmonic finesse and Oxley's instrumentation all reveal a profound sympathy with developments in modern classical music - these pieces could conceivably be transcribed and performed as notated compositions and hold their own against contemporary repertoire. Not that they sound composed (they don't), but rather in that they intuitively partake of an idea of structure and motivic development quite in keeping with the aesthetic of European contemporary music. "Carrousel" is a case in point, growing slowly but surely from Oxley's intermittent crescendi towards the high register flurries of the ending, which collapses gently upon itself like a deflating balloon, Van Hove's glissandi dissolving effortlessly into the scales that lie behind them. "Foreplay / Vorspiel" and "Witchy" feature his ghostly accordion, complemented to perfection by Gratkowski's twitching clarinets and Oxley's delicate kit and cymbal work. Oxley is one of the great British percussionists of his generation along with the late John Stevens and AMM's Eddie Prevost, and his playing here recalls both.
The FIN trio, recorded ten months later with percussionist Ivo Vander Borght and Greek cello virtuoso Nikos Veliotis (also a contemporary music specialist and master interpreter of Xenakis), is just as impressive, but much crunchier and spikier, with Van Hove opting more for clusters than lines. Vander Borght's lightness of touch is perfectly adapted to the music's high-speed interchanges: "Montagnes russes" ("Rollercoasters") is a fitting title for a piece whose frequent twists and turns sometimes recall the early days of Holland's mythical and long out-of-print ICP label, with ideas appearing, developing, self-destructing and disappearing at dizzying speed. In stark contrast, "Chemical chord" plays with sustained sounds, Van Hove on accordion and Veliotis using his bachbow, which allows him to play on all four strings at once. After the dense microtonal intensity of the sombre and grainy "No tango on Mars", "Into the night", Bartók as filtered through the SME, is the perfect way to round off one of the most exciting improv albums of the year.

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Simon H. Fell

Bruce's Fingers BF 46

Like Anthony Braxton, Simon Fell is a performing musician of the highest order who seeks the bridge the gap that has arisen between contemporary composition and free improvisation. Unlike Braxton, Fell actually knows how to write for the symphony orchestra - his music reveals a knowledge and understanding of Varèse, Birtwistle and Stockhausen (the title of this piece references the latter's 1959 solo percussion masterpiece "Zyklus") and his compositions continue to extend the serial method at a time when many contemporary composers have given it up for dead, opting instead for the lush opulence of musique spectrale and/or drone (hardly soft options, but ones that, in the hands of less experienced practitioners, demand far less intellectual rigour). "Kaleidozyklen" was originally conceived as a concerto grosso for Fell's quintet (see his "Thirteen Rectangles", BF 43) and orchestra, until funding problems forced him to reduce the concertino from five to three: Rachel Cocks (clarinets) and Paul Kosciecha (piano) join Fell himself (on bass) and a twenty-six strong ensemble (with up to four additional conductors in the third movement, "Frequency") in this live recording of the November 2000 premiere in Leeds University.
"Duration", the work's opening movement - and its longest at 26 minutes - is based on an 88 note series which purposefully sets out to explore extreme registers (to coin the language of set theory, Fell is more interested in exploring p-space than pc-space), contrasting fully-scored material of considerable complexity with passages of raw fury that the composer astutely recognises can only be properly articulated through improvisation. After the seven-minute eerie slow movement "Timbre", the work's central pillar, "Frequency" is a compositional tour de force: the use of multiple conductors recalls not only Stockhausen but also Ives, and Fell's fondness for throwing in quotations from 20th century classics in perfectly in line with the American master's all-inclusive musical vision (though I don't think Ives ever quoted Strauss). "(In)articulation" is where Fell parts company with the European avant-garde's self-imposed aesthetic purity and throws his hand in with the Americans: he programmed the famous Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony into music software that scanned the work for minimum accuracy, "correcting" the score into a bland diatonicism worthy of early John Adams or Gavin Bryars. Keeping a foothold in Europe at the same time, this bizarre sub-score is accompanied by tremolo strings working inexorably through a 23-note series. ("I hope you find it as disconcerting as I do," writes Fell.) The final(e) "Intensity" finds the composer back in the classics, quoting the double bassoon Dies Irae from Adrian Boult's 1968 "The Instruments of The Orchestra" (a Fell favourite: he already used it back in his "Mutual and Reciprocal Ceremonies") to power the music forward to a noisy and thrilling climax.
In a recent interview with the writer, trombonist and composer Radu Malfatti audaciously compared British improvising saxophonist Evan Parker to the high priest of New Complexity Brian Ferneyhough: "I know Evan hates Ferneyhough on the grounds that he just can't see the point of writing music which is completely unplayable. But if you have a close look at Evan's own work, you realize that he is moving around in exactly the same category. His work also is "unplayable" - at least for others - and he seems to be as interested in virtuosity as good old Brian is." Whether or not Simon Fell would concur with the notion that his music is unplayable (I imagine he would not, but it's always worth bearing in mind Harry Halbreich's dictum that "all unplayable music becomes playable after a time"), I'm sure he would recognise the logic behind the comparison. By studiously avoiding the slickness of cut'n'splice postmodernism (compare Fell's work with Zorn's: both express their deep admiration for the contemporary classical and free jazz / improv repertoires, but their compositional approaches are a world apart), Fell doesn't - won't - make things easy for you, but he makes it abundantly clear that to get anything out of music you have to be prepared for the long haul. "Kaleidozyklen" will have plenty of surprises in store for the patient listener long after Zorn's pretty but somewhat vapid recent compositions have yielded up their secrets.

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Jeth Rollins Odom

Sonority 001

After a meteoric rise to short-lived fame as Paris Transatlantic's West Coast correspondent (the infamous dispatch complete with hot tubs and rental cars is still available for consultation at his website, Jethro Odom found himself in Europe in 1999, where he enrolled in several workshops at Les Ateliers UPIC (these days called CCMIX), Iannis Xenakis' alternative to IRCAM. Using UPIC software, Odom generated several original soundfiles that lay dormant in his apartment (while he was travelling on business in Europe and touring the streets of Brooklyn in search of an oud) until he reworked them this spring into the eight brief tracks that comprise "The Absence of Theory". In typical Jethro style, his accompanying notes are alternatively serious ("To Your Face") or humorous ("Behind Your Back") - the BYB notes on "Ask the Sun", for example, suggest that it's the perfect music to mainline smack to (having pursued the matter further with the composer, I'm happy to report that this is not a habit Jethro has ever indulged in personally). The music is superbly recorded - check out our soundbite of "The Geometer Walking Through Fog" and give your tweeters a thrill - and highly accomplished, but never quite manages to shake off its origins as sketch material (presumably for a larger work?). I'm tempted to do my own remix, Jethro, if you promise to come back and write for us again...

Jethro Odom Website

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Title of the week: "Here's to the death of 1 over f"
Various Artists
Karate Joe KJ 006
Various Artists
STREWTH! An abstract compilation from Australia & New Zealand
Synaesthesia SYN 002

"Music for Short Attention Spans" could be an alternative title for "Delay Makes Me Nervous", an impressive if frustrating compilation produced by Vienna's Institut für Elektroakustik; it's clear that all the musicians involved must have spent dozens of hours in front of their computers, but with only one exception, Oliver Grimm's "Driveby", a monumental pile-up of traffic sound, the resulting music is so multi-directional it seems to be suffering a permanent identity crisis. A metaphor for the current state of electronic music, perhaps. Florian Bogner's "Umgebung_0.2" is a quietly unsettling collage of snatches of diverse musics glued together with washes of clicks, radio noise and close-miked objects, one of which could be a guitar, while Srob's "Kwatsh" seems to be sourced in field recordings of tree frogs and what sounds like a lawnmower. Things nearly go pop with Thermodynamic Superstar & His Gardeners' "Playing:Bluter1", but we have to wait until Viewnix's "Zero Generalizability" before we encounter a real backbeat cutting through claustrophobic organs and distorted vocal fragments. Gilbert Handler's "Deka dent" is also sourced in vocals (very Phil Minton), and his "Vous êtes belle" presents a Gainsbourg-meets-Barry Adamson rap in English and French over a subtly degrading hiphop beat. While some of the pieces are more abstract (notably Oliver Maklott's "Blubberwrap", interspersing nervous scatterings of digital noise with silence), it seems that these guys can't decide if they want their music to be on empreintes DIGITALes or Tigerbeat6: Max Kircher's "Revision" kicks into about half a second's worth of funk after about a minute of resonant gong-like sounds, before settling into a tomtom / balaphone groove it never manages to climb out of, and despite a promising start Jakob Polacsek's "Zwingen und zwingen lassen" can't resist dropping into cheesy techno. There is - there has to be - life after Mego, but nobody here seems to know exactly what form it will assume.

A lot of what was said above applies to "Strewth" (the only difference between Austria and Australia is "al" after all, but the guys from down under come up with more interesting track titles): Candlesnuffer's "Bathe him in paper" is a disturbing buzz of Pimmonesque digital insects, a bit heavy on the panning but a clear indication of the fun you're in for during the rest of the album. There's a lot of hi-speed flitting about, squelchy footsteps, and it's all very busy and buzzy. Phil Samartzis' "NHK Tokyo" seems to pay homage to Japan, with its Ikeda-like machine gunning low pulses and Sachiko M style high frequency drones; Auigiugui's "Lita lite up bocca" is a real brain-fry - imagine you've been reincarnated as a solenoid inside a pinball machine and this is what life sounds like - woe betide you if you drop acid and pop this one into the CD player by mistake. The ubiquitous Oren Ambarchi's delicate "Kozel" and Matt Thomas' beautifully spacious "Approach" come as something of light relief after the cut'n'splatter assaults of Cray, Xonk and Squinch, and Darrin Verhagen's "Here's to the death of 1 over f" (featuring someone counting from one to twenty-something, partly in German - I had to double-check I hadn't put the Viennese compilation back in the machine by mistake) creates a mood of austerity which continues in Netochka Nezvanova's "Poztgenom!knuklearporekomplekz". One supposes that Dion Workman's "for i/x" is dedicated to the late lamented Iannis Xenakis, who I like to imagine would have enjoyed its extreme high register timbres if not the implied backbeat. Both David Franzke's "CC Kid" and Rosy Parlane's "Shado" return to the omnipresent (these days) drone, the former setting it in a shimmering heat haze, the latter gradually obliterating it with an uncomfortable accumulation of flutters, crackles and scrapes. Where the Viennese went out looking backwards, the Australians and New Zealanders seem to have their sights set on the next wave of electronic music. Surf's up.

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