January News 2003 CD Reviews by Dan Warburton:

Walter Zimmermann
Roland Ramanan
Ernesto Rodrigues on Creative Sources
Sofa Releases: Wachsmann / Hug / Grydeland / Zach
+ No Spaghetti Edition

Christian Wolff
Minamo / I-Sound + Daniel Raffel / Jorg-Maria Zeger
Assumed Possibilities
Alvin Lucier

Last Month
More January Reviews

Walter Zimmermann

Mode 111

The music of Walter Zimmermann (born 1949), unlike that of his namesake Bernd Alois, has been woefully under-represented on disc - all more reason then to celebrate this awesome release on Mode. The title track ("Shadows of Ideas" - deriving from Giordano Bruno) is a study in unison playing for piano quartet, and, apart from a celebrated passage in Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" and the opening volleys of Knussen's "Coursing", is unique in its genre. Here and elsewhere, the playing by Freiburg's Ensemble Recherche is absolutely flawless. The work flows forward through its thirteen and a half minutes at a steady (but never rhythmically regular) pace, its melodic line twisting and turning dizzily through chromaticism and diatonicism. Intervals, melodic contours and discrete pitches seem to reappear, inviting the listener to return again and again into the shadows of Zimmermann's ideas and exquisite instrumentation to discover its secrets. Inspired by a woodcut (reproduced as the album cover) of a man poking his head through the earth's crust to view the cosmos beyond, "Ursache und Vorwitz" ("Cause and Pertness"), for horn, violin, cello, piano, percussion and (very discreet) tape is another conceptual triumph: the sheer difficulty of coordinating string glissandi (not to mention the ferociously difficult quarter tones in the horn's extreme upper register) is evident to the most inexperienced listener. 1992's string trio "Distentio", from a series of Zimmermann works entitled "About Time" (the first of which, "Festina Lente" appeared on the Arditti Quartet's splendid "From Germany" compilation on Audivis Montaigne), is a more unapproachable affair, its glissandi drifting off to resonate in silence like the aphorisms of Aurelius Augustinus that inspired it. The wind trio "Shadows of Cold Mountain 3" attempts to "translate the gestural-calligraphic weaves of lines by Brice Marden into sound". Like Feldman, whose music he openly acknowledges as an influence, Zimmermann is fascinated by the relationship between painting and music, and, also like Feldman, he proves that material of an apparently simple nature played by apparently "normal" instruments is capable of almost infinite subtlety. A total triumph.

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Roland Ramanan

Emanem 4081

Both the album title and the voluminous, chatty and (unnecessarily) self-deprecating liner notes remind us that Roland Ramanan is the son of the late Ellsworth "Shake" Keane, trumpeter on Joe Harriott's legendary 1960s albums, and that despite studies with John Stevens and stints with the London Improvisers Orchestra, Ramanan's jazz background is ever to the fore on this, perhaps the most "jazzy" Emanem release in recent months. Only four of its ten tracks were "entirely improvised"; the others were conceived - as opposed to composed - by Ramanan before and during two studio sessions in September 2002 for which the 36 year old trumpeter gathered an impressive group: cellist Marcio Mattos, drummer Mark Sanders and bassist Simon Fell (who positively revels in the compositional stratagems used in pieces like "showers"). Ramanan's fragile upper register and occasional use of wooden flutes recalls Don Cherry, and Sanders swings along busily on the opening "before", rides the cymbals like Jon Christensen on "promised" and adds some nifty brushwork on the final "forgotten", which the trumpeter unashamedly describes as a ballad. Of "break", he writes: "To cut loose and really blow out is often considered primitive and uncouth within the ego-less, collective world of improvised music" and then goes right ahead and does it (that's jazz..). Even if some ten minutes and five pages of his notes could have been edited out without causing much damage, "Shake" is an impressive debut album and one his dad could feel mighty proud of.

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Ernesto Rodrigues
Ernesto Rodrigues / Antonio Chaparreiro / Jose Oliveira
Creative Sources CS 002
Ernesto Rodrigues / Jose Oliveira / Marco Franco
Creative Sources CS 003
Ernesto Rodrigues / Guilherme Rodrigues / Gabriel Paluk / Jose Oliveira
Creative Sources CS 005

These three fine CDs featuring violinist / violist Ernesto Rodrigues come as further proof that, after years of relative isolation at the far end of the Iberian peninsula, post-Expo Portugal is catching up fast. "Sudden Music", eloquently introduced by Rui Eduardo Paes in his notes, finds Rodrigues with guitarist Antonio Chaparreiro and Jose Oliveira on percussion and inside piano, and if the opening minutes of "Round Angles and Sharp Lines" sound as if they could have come from a Phosphor concert, things get pretty passionate about the ten minute mark. Paes may have his reasons for wanting to hail these guys as "the improvisers of silence", but compared to recent offerings from Berlin, Tokyo, London and Boston it's pretty active stuff ("Lateral Thinking" is the quietest piece on offer). Paes is on the money when he writes that "too much is generally played in improvisation [..] and one easily cedes to the temptation of exhibitionist virtuosity", but to some extent the musicians end up doing precisely this, even more so on "23 Exposures", which finds Rodrigues (once more with Oliveira - doubling on guitar this time - and soprano saxophonist Marco Franco replacing Chaparreiro) trying his hand at the short form: average track duration is 2'40". While some pieces (6, 12, 13, 18, 22) leave enough space for sounds to breathe, the overall impression is somewhat cluttered and too much of a muchness. "Ficta", featuring a more timbrally varied ensemble of cello, pocket trumpet (Guilherme Rodrigues), piano (Gabriel Paluk) along with Ernesto's strings and Oliveira's percussion, is the most satisfying of the three albums on offer here. Its six pieces clock in at 46 minutes, and the eight-minute track duration is ideal for Rodrigues, whose good feel for structure was obscured by the extended sprawl of "Sudden Music"'s four tracks and squashed by the two-minute strictures of "Exposures". I'm not all that sure about Paes' references to nihilism; true, the tracks are entitled "Nihil 00.01" to "00.06", but this is engaging and colourful music that testifies to a fresh and undeniably positive approach to improvised music.

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Wachsmann / Hug / Grydeland / Zach
Sofa S08
No Spaghetti Edition
Sofa S09
Tri-Dim + Jim O'Rourke & Barry Guy
2 OF 2
Sofa S10

These three elegant-looking releases from Norway reveal the close links that have grown up between that country and its neighbour across the North Sea: each features input from British musicians - bassist Barry Guy slugs it out with the Tri-Dim trio (reedman Håkon Kornstad, guitarist David Stackenås and percussionist Ingar Zach), Phil Minton and Pat Thomas add some sauce to the No Spaghetti quintet, and Phil Wachsmann's violin and electronics dance gracefully around Charlotte Hug's viola, Ivar Grydeland's guitar and Zach's percussion on "Wazahugy" (whose unimaginative title is another British touch often used by Martin Davidson's Emanem label). For added hipness (and, probably more importantly, guaranteeing the album will sell fast) Jim O'Rourke pops up as guest remixer of one of the tracks on "2 of 2". Quite how Jim finds the time to do all he does is a mystery to me, but even if he did throw this together in an afternoon, it still sounds fresher than much of what surrounds it - for despite being excellently recorded documents of accomplished and vivacious improvisation, none of these three albums sounds substantially different from the kind of stuff Incus, Emanem and Bead (Wachsmann's old label) were putting out a quarter of a century ago. The question is how many albums of rapid-fire chattery improv do you need to own? I'm not sure why young Norwegians want to go trotting down Derek and Evan's garden path, but they'd do well to remember Christian Wolff's telling critique of the total serial complexity of the Darmstadt avant-garde: "Complexity tends to reach a point of neutralization; continuous change results in a certain sameness." In rock, the idea that you can continue doing the same thing for thirty years provokes laughter, if not pity (unless you're dumb enough to pay big bucks to see stadium dinosaurs like the Eagles or the Stones, not to mention clowns like Cliff Richard and France's terminally ridiculous Johnny Hallyday) but it's apparently OK in jazz and improvised music. Bailey, Parker (Evan and William), Brötzmann, Taylor and Guy (to name a few) are still awesomely impressive, especially live, but they're treading water. "A bunch of old guys sitting around playing rock'n'roll", to quote Frank Zappa, who ended up doing a lot of that himself. In all fairness though, there is much to like and admire on these three offerings from Sofa, but revisiting "Topography of the Lungs" thirty-two years after the fact and selling it as "hardcore improv" somehow bothers me.

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Christian Wolff

Matchless MRCD51 (2CD)

After recent extraordinary releases of music by Feldman and Cardew, pianist John Tilbury pays homage to another friend and mentor, Christian Wolff, with this outstanding double CD (Wolff himself and percussionist Eddie Prevost help out on the second disc). Christian Wolff started studying music with John Cage when he was just sixteen in 1950, and "For Prepared Piano" (1951) is an affectionate nod towards the rhythmic aspects of his teacher's early music, its four short pieces each following a predetermined 25 bar (5x5) structure. In 1951, at Cage's suggestion, Wolff visited Pierre Boulez in Paris while the latter was working on his epochal "Structures" for two pianos, and "For Piano I" is a rigorous workout of nine pitches (frozen in register), nine dynamic values and thirteen durations. As if in reaction to this piece's frosty rigour, "For Piano II" (1953) sets out to use all 88 notes of the piano, but it's still a challenging listen, with its sounds "dissociated, scattered and thrown into irregular configurations without regard for linear continuity" (to quote Michael Parsons' excellent and highly informative liner notes). In the "Suite (I)" (1954), where "Wolff is working with discrete preselected elements, juxtaposed and superimposed by means of intricate structural schemes not directly accessible to the listener", you'll also have to come along prepared to think.
In 1957, Wolff began incorporating elements of indeterminacy into his scores (see the two "Duos for Pianists"), leaving performers free to choose certain specified sounds and insert them into time brackets of varying durations (Cage returned to the time bracket idea in his late "numbers" pieces). In "For Pianist" (1959), Wolff attempted to involve a single performer in unpredictable situations, specifying various activities to be executed - sometimes simultaneously - with precise instructions to be followed depending on the outcome. Though still disjunct and angular, there are more surprises in store - from the occasional slamming of the piano lid to the odd unadorned dominant seventh. In the "Duet I" for piano (four hands) and 1961's "Trio II" (adding percussion), Wolff developed systems of cueing to specify event order and duration, attack and release. As his work developed during the 1960s, text began to replace musical staff notation, but anyone imagining that following Wolff's instructions is child's play is well-advised to listen to John Tilbury: "You are so involved with actually making the sound that you have no opportunity for emotional indulgence; you have a job to do and it takes all your concentration to do it efficiently - i.e. musically. With this music you learn the prime qualities needed in performing [Tilbury could just as well be speaking of listening]: discipline, devotion and disinterestedness."

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Minamo / I-Sound + Daniel Raffel / Jorg-Maria Zeger

Apestaartje staartje011

Tokyo-based electronics quartet Minamo's "Hum" starts out close in feel to Burkhard Stangl's recent collaboration with dieb13 on Erstwhile, "eh", with gentle diatonic guitar chords floating on a cloud of tiny hums, rumbles and bleeps, before rich organ drones fill out the texture. Three minutes or so from the end, a more definable grid of interlocking pulses appears briefly, but soon evaporates into thin air like the wispy clouds that adorn the album cover. New York's I-Sound and Daniel Raffel's "Bottled Water" pursues the same spaced-out agenda, a slow-moving harmonic backdrop (once more a I - IV - I plagal cadence) embellished by swirls of shortwave-like electronics, while Jorg-Maria Zeger, the discreet but essential guitarist in Berlin's Perlonex (with Ignaz Schick and Burkhard Beins) contributes two pieces, "Pohon" and "I Kut", influenced by his work with the musicians of South East Asia and recorded direct to disc without overdubbing. If Rhys Chatham had been recording in Bali instead of NYC in the mid 1970s he might have come up with something similar. Like all the music on offer here, it's a little soporific, but undeniably elegant and beautifully executed.

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Assumed Possibilities

Rossbin RS007

In the genre of so-called "reductionist" or (to use a very misleading term) "minimalist" improvised music, considerable differences exist between the approaches of musicians as diverse as Taku Sugimoto, Axel Dörner and Bhob Rainey. In London, which boasts perhaps the largest community of free improvisers of any major world capital, reductionism has taken root partly in reaction as much to the continued towering presence of first generation improvising maestros such as Evan Parker as to the unwieldy and intensely busy music of the LIO. All the principal protagonists in London's quiet school, with the exception of trumpeter Matt Davis, are present on this superb album (the group's second, following an earlier CDR - now out of print - on Confront): cellist Mark Wastell, harpist Rhodri Davies, violinist Phil Durrant and pianist Chris Burn. Burn, an unsung hero of English improvised music through his groundbreaking work mixing improvisation and composition with his Ensemble, was displaying his knowledge of the inside of a piano when Andrea Neumann was playing with Barbie dolls. Durrant, since the demise of his trio with Johns Butcher and Russell, has been moving progressively further away from hi-energy free improv (though he's still very good at it: witness his work with the group Lunge) towards the Powerbook, but his violin playing is still evident - just - on two of reductionism's landmark albums, "Beinhaltung" (Fringes) and "Dach" (Erstwhile), both featuring Thomas Lehn and Radu Malfatti. Davies and Wastell (who also runs the record shop most worth visiting in North London, Sound323) have collaborated extensively as both performers and organisers, until recently co-curating an important series of concerts at St Michael and All Angels Church in West London.
All the music on "Still Point" is improvised with the exception of Wastell's "Related Activity" - a series of Feldmanesque vignettes juxtaposing Burn's toy pianos with gently pulsing pitch figures from the strings - and "Still Point" itself, by Davies, and despite that reductionist nametag, there's quite a lot going on at any given moment, but much of it is at a low dynamic level. If Brian Eno hadn't bagged it as an album title, "Discreet Music" would have been a perfect moniker. Feldman once told Stockhausen that the difference between his music and the German's was that he (Feldman) "didn't push notes about" ("What," retorted Stockhausen, "not even a little bit?"), and the same is true of events here. "Still Point" is a triumph of the genre, as precise in its sound world as a Swiss watch, as elegant and contemplative as a Zen garden, and as civilised and reserved as.. afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason's. Assumed Possibilities joins Shakespeare, Marks & Spencers and the Lisbon cable car network on my list of British Things One Can Feel Truly Proud Of.

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Various Artists

Bremsstrahlung 002 (2CD)

Elegantly presented with cover art by Alorenz and Felice Frankel, and with track info printed in reverse on tiny squares of onion-skin vellum, "lowercase-sound 2002" is an ambitious and impressive double CD compilation curated by Californian sound artist Josh Russell. The term "lowercase" was adopted by composer Steve Roden in 1998 (to refer to a music that "bears a certain sense of quiet and humility [..] it must be discovered") before being adopted by Boston-based thereminist James Coleman as the title of a discussion group on the subject, and though Roden himself isn't along the 33 artists/groups featured here, Coleman does make an appearance with his Undr Quartet (with Greg Kelley, Vic Rawlings and Liz Tonne).
Bremsstrahlung's Russell has divided the tracks into "music weighted towards the recording of physical materials" (this disc bears a large dot instead of a number) and "more purely electronic compositions" (the 'dash' disc), though it's sometimes unclear how he decides which is which. Surely Bob Sturm's "100:200111 Torrey Pines Outer Buoy", though derived from data collected on waves and coastal erosion, is as "electronic" as Ronnie Sundin's "_siesmol" (this latter sourced in part from sounds recorded not too far away on a Santa Monica beach), but Sturm's piece is on the dot disc and Sundin's on the dash (similarly, Jonas Lindgren's "Groundwater", explicitly sourced in recordings of flood water in the Swedish town of Sundsvall, would seem to be more at home on the dot disc, but it's on the dash instead). In accordance with the dot/dash conceit, Russell indicates track durations not in minutes and seconds, but in "breaths" (on the dot) and "samples" (the dash disc). Six minutes would seem to be the maximum allotted time-span, but some pieces say all they have to say much faster. Several are slight and eminently forgettable, but most are strikingly original, notably Bernhard Gal's "Zhu Shui" (an installation featuring four whistling kettles brought to and taken off the boil), Russell's own "bp 70/32" (whose sound sources include a discarded cell phone running out of batteries, a helium balloon and bacteria freezing in a dry-ice methanol bath), Yannick Dauby's beautifully intimate exploration of female vocalisms and stones ("In Dolem") and Joseph Siemion's "Discourse", whose low-register sine waves may, be warned, cause your speakers to "fail". Argentinian originals Reynols reappear with another piece sourced from blank tapes (there was a whole album's worth a while back on the trente oiseaux label), and Vienna-based Radu Malfatti contributes a brief piece for three (overdubbed) trombones that uses a random-number generating computer program written by his son Ben to place isolated tones into a predetermined silent time frame. In contrast to such stark modernism, the notes accompanying Dale Lloyd's "Fleeting Recollections of the Snow Plain" ("finally we put aside the distractions and glance out into the frozen landscape and meditate on the beauty of nature") inscribe themselves solidly in a tradition dating back to Thoreau and Emerson, and also recall Ives' famous commentary on the final movement of his Second String Quartet.
Impressive as these works are, one feels that Russell might have included more purely acoustic lowercase music (in accordance with his dot/dash aesthetic separation): the contributions from Seattle's Animist Orchestra and the aforementioned Undr Quartet are delicate and beautiful, but are all too easily dwarfed by more superficially impressive (maybe oppressive) works nearby by Siemion and Jason Lescalleet. There's much diversity in instrumental lowercase music too, from Malfatti's colleagues in the Wandelweiser group (Russell only has to look up the road to find Michael Pisaro) to the network of reductionist improvisers slowly and discreetly spreading throughout the world (in Boston, London, Berlin and Tokyo). As Steve Roden, Bernhard Günter, Richard Chartier, Taku Sugimoto and Sachiko M (to name a few) have enjoyed quite considerable exposure over recent years, I won't bemoan their exclusion here, but had Russell chosen to dispense with the rather slight offerings from Electric Company, John Hudak, Dave Gross and Francisco Lopez, he might have had space to include something by the likes of Taku Unami, Mark Wastell and Nikos Veliotis.
The dash disc starts with a real conceptual coup, Otaku Yakuza's "The Space of a Second", which, the composer proudly informs us, consists of one thousand samples (each a microsecond in duration) from sources as hilariously diverse as Keith Rowe, Varèse, Leo Kottke and Aphex Twin. You'll have to take his word for it, for despite the hours that one assumes went into its creation, the track sounds like nothing more than a needle being dragged brutally across a vinyl (even loaded into SoundForge and slowed down several times - out of curiosity I tried - it's almost impossible to spot the source material). After this tiny raspberry, another one of Francisco Lopez's "Untitled" series (number 118) comes roaring out of the speakers. Just joking - he doesn't play the Death Metal card this time - though I seriously wonder how many people go out of their way to collect the complete Lopez discography. The Ronnie Sundin piece that follows at least has a sting in its tail - just in case you thought lowercase music absolutely had to be almost inaudible throughout - and Akira Rabelais's "disjectimembrapoetaeeatelich" is as inscrutable as its title (and Rabelais' wonderful website). There's a fine expressive sweep to Dan Abrams' "Feature", a deft nod to sophisticated ambient in Peter Van Hoesen's "objectseq" and a fascinatingly intricate filigree offering from Michael Schumacher, but Stephan Mathieu's "Flake" seems to do just that, and the sequence of tracks by Tetsu Inoue, Taylor Deupree and Kim Cascone could have come from just about any compilation of new electronic music. Being mixed at an overall low dynamic level doesn't automatically confer upon music the quiet and humility referred to in Roden's original definition of "lowercase": Toshi Nakamura's "nimb #20" is a pretty disturbing piece despite its restricted vocabulary and timbral palette, while the above-mentioned roar of Lindgren's "Groundwater" is almost Beethovenian in its grandeur - and "lowercase" is certainly not an adjective I associate with Ludwig. Still, it's churlish to quibble; "lowercase-sound 2002" is a well-researched and beautifully produced and highly recommended collection of accomplished music, and I'm pleased to report that Russell and Bremsstrahlung have embarked on a whole series of 3" CD releases to follow. Watch this space. Or, rather, join the dots and follow the dashes.

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Alvin Lucier

New World 80604-2

"This is the fulfilment of a dream for a new kind of music. There is nothing like "Vespers" in the literature of music. It is a completely new way of defining what music is, and the definition is given to us in a purely realized form." So writes Robert Ashley in his liner notes; a little glowing in his praise, maybe, but in Alvin Lucier's case the hype is justified.
In "Vespers", performers equipped with Sondols (sonar dolphin echolocation devices) move around the performing space, creating an image of it in the listener's perception. Though no stereo CD version can, as Ashley rightly notes, ever reproduce the music's spatial aspects faithfully, the sixteen-minute version on offer here is mesmerisingly beautiful. With hindsight, Lucier's pioneering work can be seen as the precursor of many developments in today's music: Brandon Labelle and Achim Wollscheid's investigations into music's relationship with architecture clearly point back to "Vespers"; Lucier's "Chambers" predates by thirty years Toshiya Tsunoda's experiments recording with microphones inside closed spaces; and thanks to 1963's marvellously-titled "Elegy for Albert Anastasia", Lucier can be considered a godfather to any number of composers and performers (Francisco Lopez, Bernhard Günter, Steve Roden..) who have chosen to concentrate their attention on the very quiet, almost inaudible. Also included here is the long overdue reissue of 1967's "North American Time Capsule" (where Lucier uses Sylvania vocoders to analyse and produce purely electronic versions of spoken and other sounds, as "a message to listeners who don't know about us") whose raw, grizzly squelch has lost none of its power, and "(Middletown) Memory Space", which instructs performers to go out into a city and record, by any means, its sounds, in order to return to the performance space and "recreate, solely by means of your voices and instruments [..] those outside sound situations." This version for koto, shakuhachi, guitar, accordion and piano is exquisite - and that's perhaps where the true significance of Lucier's work lies: the musical realisation of his concepts is as striking and memorable as the concepts themselves.

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