January latest 2003 Reviews by Dan Warburton:

Unsolicited Music Ensemble
Suffer / Enjoy
Nelly Pouget: Le Waw
Fred Van Hove: Complete Vogel Recordings
Chris Burn Ensemble
Pernaiachi / Mayr / Di Giampietro: three new releases from Ants
Scott Fields

January First Part

Unsolicited Music Ensemble
Slam slamcd250
The Unsolicited Music Ensemble (unsolicited as opposed to spontaneous, it would seem - though John Stevens often comes to mind) is a trio featuring Martin Küchen on saxophones (and objects), Raymond Strid on percussion and Tony Wren on bass. Wren, formerly a member of Phil Wachsmann's Chamberpot in the 1970s, made a spectacular return to improvising with 2001's "Angel Gate" - though that particular line-up of his Quatuor Accorde has now split, after violinist Phil Durrant and cellist Mark Wastell chose a quieter path to follow - followed up by last year's excellent "Four In The Afternoon" (with Howard Riley, Larry Stabbins and Mark Sanders), both on Emanem. The sax/bass/drums line-up on "Bulbs" might on paper recall such legendary improv power trios as Brötzmann/Kowald/Johansson or Parker/Guy/Lytton, but the UME's music is closer in spirit to Stevens' SME, as hinted above; Küchen, though a forceful free jazz player with his Exploding Customer quartet, is content to embed himself in the group texture rather than front the band, while Wren and Strid remain agile but dynamically discreet throughout. Timbre and event-density are more important parameters here than pitch, which, given the similarities that manifest themselves between several tracks, is a little frustrating (especially recalling the thrill of the Dionysian blow-outs on Wren's Emanem albums and Strid and Küchen's Ayler releases), but, as with much contemporary improvised music, "Bulbs" requires active and concentrated attention on the part of the listener to reveal its secrets.

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Suffer / Enjoy

Various Artists
Antifrost afro2014
"We want to be clear on this," runs the press blurb from Antifrost, "this is not a tonal experiment for studio users, nor a tool for frequency analysis but a flow of sound which needs no reference to technical, procedural or conceptual levels." Let me explain: the gimmick of "Suffer / Enjoy" is that the eleven artists were invited to create a piece working in a bandwith restricted to 200hz (a bit like asking someone to write a piano piece using just three or four adjacent semitones). Francisco Lopez, pg-13 and Utah Kawasaki each chose to work from 0 - 200hz, after which we rise through the frequency spectrum from Zbigniew Karkowski (11 - 211), Coti (110 -310), Ilios (490 - 690), as11 (991 - 1191), Philip Samartzis (1599 - 1799), Ami Yoshida (2098 - 2298), to Jason Kahn (14000 - 14200), ending up with Kim Cascone's "ultraSonic beat frequency meter test", which is presumably designed to kill all household pets stone dead (Cascone, evidently feeling that the 200hz bandwidth was just too wide, concentrated on frequencies between 17000 and 17002). Of the low-end stuff, not much happens in Lopez's piece except a dull thud after about six minutes. pg-13's "Forces of Nature" and Karkowski's untitled rumble will at least give your woofers a thrill, while Kawasaki prefers to get lost in the upper partials. With pitch being so severely restricted, one might have hoped that rhythm might assume a more prominent role, but the offerings from Coti, Ilios and as11 are no less baldly experimental. At least Samartzis has the good sense to pepper his piece with silence. Ami Yoshida's offering is the last remotely listenable track on offer before the inner ear cleansing of Kahn and Cascone. You decide which of the album title's two imperatives more accurately sums up the experience. I'm just glad I don't own a dog.

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Nelly Pouget / Maurice Clement
Minuit Regards SL 13502
I'll level with you and say from the outset that the pipe organ is NOT my favourite instrument (unless the performer / composer manages to make it sound like something else - Ligeti's "Volumina" or Jean-Luc Guionnet's "Pentes" on A Bruit Secret). The fact that it tends to be found in churches has probably got something to do with it. On "Le Waw" Maurice Clement tries his best to disguise the horrible mechanical beast's total inability to express the slightest nuance of dynamics and timbre with some inventive stop-pulling, but it just can't match Nelly Pouget's full, rich and accomplished saxophone playing for variety of envelope and, well, humanity. That said, churches are like bathrooms - whatever you record in them always sounds bigger and better than it actually is. "Le Waw" is the second sax-meets-organ album to come out of France in the past couple of years, after Etienne Brunet and Fred Van Hove's "Improvisations" (Saravah, 2001). It's not all sax in fact - on "Gopitchang" Pouget plays a Timorese monochord of the same name (shame she didn't let that opening drone run longer), and "No More Death Penalty" features her wild impassioned, ahem, vocals. On soprano sax she's just as impressive as Brunet (the solo "A Jean" is particularly fine), but if I have to compare organists I'll take Van Hove's acidic, angry clusters any day. Clement's tendency to drift harmonically back to sickly-sweet octatonic Messiaen and pad the thing out with non-stop vamping and twiddling soon becomes frankly annoying, and his gothick horror movie organ splatters on "No More Death Penalty" are embarrassingly hilarious (though they're supposed to sound terrifying, one imagines). But, as I said, I don't like organs.

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Fred Van Hove

Unheard Music Series UMS/ALP 229 CD
Recorded between 1972 and 1974, and transferred from the original vinyl (presumably because the originals are so hard to find), here at last - a treat for Fred Van Hove enthusiasts - are the pianist's complete recordings for the Belgian Vogel label, a February 1972 solo studio session, a duo ("Een Tweede Vogel") from November that year with saxophonist Cel Overberghe (who also overdubs bass and drums, with Van Hove taking to the Hammond organ), another solo Fred date ("Live at the University") from late 1974, plus a 7" single from 1973 with Overberghe that slipped out (and away) on a label called Mu.
The opening "Fred Van Hove" (Vogel 001-S), whose front and back cover art is reproduced here (shame UMS couldn't have found space to do likewise for the other three records), finds the pianist confronting the problem of free improvisation head on - make no mistake, this is European: Van Hove's music, both technically and aesthetically, has its roots in the 19th century virtuoso pianism of Liszt and Schumann and the (at times sardonic) vaudeville of Northern European cabaret song rather than in jazz. Certainly, the flurries of notes may recall Cecil Taylor, but the resemblance is superficial: those clusters racing up and down the keyboard are nothing more than perverted Tom and Jerry variants of the venerable building blocks of European piano technique, the scale and the arpeggio. Back in 1972 the Van Hove trademarks (pool and ping-pong balls on the strings, furious one-way glissandi..) were already in place, but his willingness to get sidetracked into acidic boogie woogie parodies ("Guustjes Rock") and strange accordion-like vamps ("Het is de Hoogste Tijd") sends the music skittering off in several directions at once, as post-Romantic harmonies are gently corrupted by dissonance and brushed furiously away by volleys of clusters. The Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg often comes to mind, but where he is often content to explore the inner voicings of chords with dogged Monkishness (verging on utter boredom), Van Hove really lets himself fly off the handle - transcribe this stuff and you could sandwich it between two pages of Ligeti Etudes without many people spotting the difference.
The distinctly European nature of the music is even more evident in the duos with Overberghe (with the exception of the latter's splendid ballad "Beter Tien Vogels in de Lucht", where Cel overdubs bass and drums to become a one-man Albert Ayler band), where the pair gleefully incorporate street sounds (what could be more European than church bells, trams and beer halls?). It might sound a bit odd today, in these times of ascetic and pristine releases from labels such as Grob and Erstwhile, but it's worth remembering that back then, up the road in Amsterdam, Willem Breuker was working with barrel organs and Misha was recording his pet parrot. Gérard Rouy's perfect period-piece photos of Fred and Cel performing to a sea of balloons or disguised as Beckett-like tramps are timely reminders of how improvised music found part of its audience in a public accustomed to those lunatic Dada cabarets that Europeans seem to revel in. Van Hove is always more perky when partnered by somebody (like Keith Jarrett, his solo performances can easily drift into mildly bombastic mannerism - mannerism with a capital M, if you like, that 16th century wilful distortion of scale and perspective), and these eight tracks with Overberghe are a blast, and the Hammond Organ proves to be the perfect vehicle for Fred's splattery clucking. Quite where the Mu single came from I have no idea, but the hilarious music-hall comping of "Kreem Galas" (recalling Groucho Marx's wonderful line to Chico in "Animal Crackers": "if you get near a melody, play one!") and the catch-me-if-you-can chromatic scales of "Bas la police" are fabulous. Po-faced constipated improv purists should be forced to listen to this at least twice a day.
The sound quality on "Live At The University" leaves something to be desired, but Van Hove's playing more than makes up for it. Angry clusters battle it out with bags of balls hurled inside the piano, wacky ragtime gives way to insane arpeggios and unresolved dominant chords. "Sprookje"'s mix of vicious chromatic left hand versus darting diatonic right sounds alarmingly like Conlon Nancarrow's player piano studies (which Van Hove could not have been familiar with at the time). It's a shame my Flemish isn't up to anything more than ordering a large beer and plate of mussels, because I'd like to know what he's rapping on about in the last track, but whatever it is, it sounds great. Now, if only UMS curator John Corbett could get his hands on the original Misha Mengelberg ICP material..

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Chris Burn Ensemble
Emanem 4080
Since its creation at the end of the 1980s, Ensemble (founded by pianist Chris Burn) has released just four albums, of which this is the fourth. The latest edition of Ensemble is scaled down in size from the eleven-piece band on 1997's "Navigations" (Acta 12), and scaled down in volume too (significantly, three of its members - Burn himself, cellist Mark Wastell and harpist Rhodri Davies - also play in the distinctly lowercase group Assumed Possibilities). The heady mix of composed and improvised elements that characterised "Navigations", which sought - and found - common ground between the worlds of contemporary New Complexity and free improvisation, is not on offer here: all five pieces are group improvisations. The opening two, "Horizontals White" and "Verticals Blue", were recorded at the Red Rose in January 2001 as part of guitarist John Russell's Mopomoso series, while tracks three to five represent the ensemble's contribution four months later to the Freedom of the City festival at the Conway Hall. Davies was not playing on that date, so the group was reduced to a quintet: Burn, Wastell, Russell and Ensemble founder members John Butcher on saxophones and Matt Hutchinson on synthesizer and electronics.
In the small world of improvised music the lowercase / reductionist (call it what you will) debate is still raging (quietly), but I like to think the members of Ensemble would agree with the following Morton Feldman quotation: "I never feel that my music is sparse or minimal; the way fat people never really think they're fat." The fact that in much of this music dynamic levels are low and there's considerable space for ideas to appear, develop and decay in no way means there can't be a hell of a lot going on. That said, we're about a million light years away from the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio here, even though the interplay between these musicians is impressive evidence of a collaboration as long and fruitful as that trio's. John Butcher, in an interview with the writer dating from March 2001 (midway between the two dates documented here), commented that "the interesting thing about Ensemble was to try to have a group sense of composition but to allow the strength of the individual voices to be heard. Not as individual voices as such, but to have something of the character of the individual players. I find that a major challenge, especially for me: the saxophone can really be like a bull in a china shop, because of its acoustic strength." Butcher rises to the challenge magnificently on "There Were Five In Eight", his tiny, chipped soprano multiphonics weaving themselves seamlessly into the brittle, starchy patchwork quilt of Russell's guitar and Burn's inside piano, along with delicate pizzicato runs from Wastell and discreet electronic squiggles from Hutchinson. "Night-time Nostalgia" is jam-packed with deliciously crunchy details, and yet never allows itself to explode into the bombastic mannerism that all too easily characterises a "good old improv blowout". This is assured, mature, elegant and rewarding music that will be appreciated as such by anyone who cares to listen to it carefully.

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Gianfranco Pernaiachi
ORA Ants AG01 (2CD)
Albert Mayr
Luigi Di Giampietro
CINQUE PEZZI Ants ant05cdr
Gianfranco Pernaiachi's "Ora", a "single flux" lasting two hours (though each of the two CDs is subdivided into three distinct tracks) that "must be listened to at low volume", comes with a graphic score that expresses simply and poetically when - but not what - sounds occur. Once you've figured out, for example, that there's nothing at all between 5'10" and 12'52" (CD 1, track 3), you can choose whether or not to wait patiently for the next sound (both the above, incidentally, are the sound of wings beating as a bird takes to the air) or go and make yourself a cup of tea. That's not intended to sound flippant, either; "Ora" doesn't impose itself upon you - it's like a slim volume of poetry lying face down on the table, and it's up to you to turn it over and open it up. With other composers of so-called lowercase music (Bernhard Günter and Francisco López come to mind), the sheer effort required to hear what's going on - and the uneasy feeling of guilt that you're missing out on something if you don't give the piece your undivided attention - is often quite exhausting; "Ora"'s gentle organic sounds (fire, water, air (the bird) and I guess the low rumble about half way though is derived from the earth) are beautiful in their own right, but you can quite easily appreciate them and read Pernaiachi's accompanying poetry at the same time. Maybe one of the websites I visited to research his biography isn't all that far from the truth by calling it New Age music. To discuss, perhaps..
In contrast, Albert Mayr's "Hora Harmonica", which invites us to "imagine an extremely slow sound where the fundamental has a period of 60 minutes" is a tiresome and arid realisation of the concept. ("The resulting rhythmic structure is made audible through assigning to each subaudio period a sound corresponding to the overtone in an audio spectrum. The 60' period is assigned to the fundamental, the 30' period to the second harmonic (octave), the 20' period to the third (twelfth) and so on.") The novelty soon wears off (the synthesized sounds are distinctly unappealing) - no wonder Mayr apparently prefers the piece to be played "in a small square or in a building where people may move around freely" - sitting through this one's a real trial. Then again, if you like your albums heavy on concept and light on actual music (Brandon Labelle fans come to mind), this might be right up your street.
Lest you get the impression that the Ants label is an Italian version of trente oiseaux or 12k, the music of Luigi Di Giampietro is a fine example of gritty and grizzly avant-garde electronic music. All five of his pieces feature electronics, with flute (Ubaldo Di Gregorio) added on "Corpora Caeca" and trombone (Giancarlo Schiaffini) on "Repetita iuvant", which is (ironically?) the richest and most aurally diverse work on offer, probably because much of it is collaged together from no less than five pieces by Luigi Nono. "La clessidra di cristallo" plays with periodicity in a way that would have probably horrified Nono, but serves as a timely reminder that the innovations of Mego, Mille Plateaux and a million other post-techno labels are as much part of the heritage of electronic music as "La fabbrica illuminata" - Di Giampietro's music, like Ned Bouhalassa's from across the pond in Canada, is an exciting example of something that happens all too rarely in "contemporary classical" music, namely a real understanding of the technology and ethos of popular music brought to bear on the venerable tradition of electronic composition.

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Scott Fields Ensemble
Rossbin RS008
"The best plan for listening to this music is to treat it as a whole rather than worry about what came from where," writes Chicago-born guitarist Scott Fields of this five-movement suite (if you're interested in the title, check out the scrambled eggs on Fields' website, www.scottfields.com) featuring Fields himself, Carrie Biolo on pitched and unpitched percussion, Guillermo Gregorio on alto sax and clarinet, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and English horn and Greg Kelley on trumpet. The first four movements ("Conflicted…", "Pissed…", "Bummed.. " and "Agitated…") also require a conductor (Stephen Dembski), whereas the finale ("Medicated…") was constructed by Greg Taylor using Max/MSP software to work on solo improvisations by the ensemble members. Rossbin regulars expecting another helping of austere, spare improvisation (the label has released excellent and highly acclaimed work by Annette Krebs, Andrea Neumann, Toshi Nakamura, not to mention Greg Kelley's second solo album) are in for a surprise; in both instrumentation and structure, this has more in common with Varèse and Birtwistle than it does with Taku Sugimoto. Fields intentionally blurs the distinction between composed and improvised material in accordance with the fine AACM tradition he grew up with, with the result that "FTDODD" joins the 4CD Rastascan box set of Anthony Braxton's Ghost Trance Music and Masashi Harada's 1999 "Condanction Ensemble" as another great example of top-notch improvisers bringing their skills to bear on material of a more composed / structured nature. Bruckmann and Gregorio have plenty of opportunities to showcase their outstanding multiphonics, and those familiar with the extraordinary sonorities Kelley can summon from his trumpet on his solo recordings will be duly impressed by his mastery of Fields' arching melodic lines. After the swirling, snarling tour de force of "Pissed…", "Bummed…" is a wondrous, strange, bassless landscape inhabited by muffled plunks from Biolo's xylophone and Fields' nylon-string guitar and plaintive wails from the wind instruments. "Agitated…", despite its title, is a decidedly fresh flowing tangle of delicately scored melodic lines, before Fields stands aside in the final movement to allow Greg Taylor to extract tissue samples of solo material and subject them to cold laboratory scrutiny with his Max/MSP software. The resulting music is, like the entire album, intriguing and impressive, if a little frosty and detached. Of course, hardcore improv snobs will dismiss it as too composed and aficionados of the likes of Ferneyhough and Finnissy will probably find it too loose, but that's the risk you run if you want to set up shop in this particular no man's land. However, as this album demonstrates time and again, far from being barren wasteland between two frontier checkpoints, the territory in question is bursting with miraculous new life forms.

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Copyright 2003 by Paris Transatlantic