January News 2004 Reviews by James Baiye, Nate Dorward, Stephen Griffith, Derek Guzman and Dan Warburton:
Don't forget to check out the links to mp3s of material featured!

On Erstwhile : AMPLIFY02 : balance
Pop Involved: Tu m' / Nathan Michel / Piana
In Concert:
Aki Onda / Jac Berrocal
Brent Gutzeit
On Incus:
Derek Bailey & Will Gaines / Limescale
On Bowindo:
Elio Martusciello / Valerio Tricoli
Alessandro Bosetti & Antje Vowinckel / Domenico Sciajno & Gert-Jan Prins

Blowing in from Chicago: Spider Compass Good Crime Band / Z'ev / Jason Ajemian & Matt Bauder / Kazu Uchihashi & Gene Coleman / Tiny Hairs

Kenny Wheeler
Berlin Strings / Grace & Delete / Pago Libre
Jack Wright & Bob Marsh / Kyle Bruckmann / Itaru Oki

The Cold Blue 10" Series
ELECTRONICA on Crouton Music:
irr.app.(ext.) / Richard Chartier

Last Month

AMPLIFY02 : balance

Various Artists
AMPLIFY02: balance
Erstwhile 033-040 (7CD + DVD)
When the music history textbooks documenting the first years of the third millennium finally come to be written, musicologists will have to address the phenomenon of electroacoustic improvised music, especially given the relative decline in importance in recent years of traditional notated composition and the ensembles associated with it, notably the symphony orchestra. While improvisation itself is as old as the hills, electronic music has been with us for barely half a century, and live electronic music - as opposed to the pristine elegance of the early works of the genre, often the results of hundreds of hours of studio time meticulously cutting and splicing magnetic tape - is even more recent. In this respect, the pioneering work of the British improvising group AMM, and particularly guitarist Keith Rowe's adoption of the table guitar and incorporation of the radio as a musical instrument, represents something of a milestone in musical history. It is fair to assume that AMM's The Crypt June 12th 1968 (Matchless MRCD05) will come to be regarded by future generations as a landmark work as important as Stockhausen's epic Hymnen of the preceding year.
In the early part of its career, AMM was relatively well-known (a brief association with The Pink Floyd and other luminaries of the London scene at the time helped matters), but from the mid 1970s through until the early 1990s the group continued to plough its lonely uncompromising furrow in near obscurity, and considerable hardship - Rowe recalls that there was a time during the Thatcher years when he was playing in public barely once a year, a fact that might in part have prompted his decision to leave England altogether and relocate to France, where he lives to this day. In the mid 1990s, happily, the tide began to turn, not only for Rowe, who today is very much in demand as a performer, but also for AMM percussionist Eddie Prévost, whose Matchless label is now beginning to rival Martin Davidson's Emanem imprint in importance as invaluable documentation of the English free improv scene, and pianist John Tilbury, whose work as an improviser is increasingly being mentioned in the same breath as his landmark interpretations of contemporary piano music, notably that of Cage, Feldman and Cardew.

In an extended article for the Wire magazine in early 2001 (Wire 206, also available in interview form here), Keith Rowe acknowledged the considerable influence AMM has had on a younger generation of performers ("when I go to festivals now I hear much more of AMM in the music than I do free jazz"). Not only performers, either: Erstwhile head honcho Jon Abbey's admiration for Rowe's work is well documented, and seemingly limitless. Though AMM as such - with Prévost - has not appeared on Erstwhile, Rowe and Tilbury in early 2003 recorded the magnificent double CD Duos For Doris (Erstwhile 030-2), and Rowe has appeared on no fewer than four other Erstwhile releases: The World Turned Upside Down (with Taku Sugimoto and Günter Müller, Erstwhile 005), Weather Sky (with Toshimaru Nakamura, Erstwhile 018), The Hands Of Caravaggio (with MIMEO and John Tilbury, Erstwhile 021) and Rabbit Run (with Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler, Erstwhile 027). Moreover, albums featuring members of MIMEO, the all-electronic improvisers' orchestra Rowe has "led from the rear" since 1997, account for fifty per cent of the Erstwhile catalogue to date.
In the above-mentioned interview Rowe described his approach to the guitar as follows: "I don't rehearse. I never practise. I never take the guitar from the case. I only ever touch the guitar in the context of performances, unless I rewire the pick-ups. I can honestly say that after forty years I still look at the guitar with absolute terror." This typically self-effacing admission seems open to potentially dangerous misunderstanding, in that it both marginalizes Rowe's experience and expertise on his chosen instrument and seems to have led a whole slew of untrained youngsters to think they can lay any old guitar flat, twiddle around with some contact mics and release an album - or ten. Rowe acknowledges that AMM's groundbreaking approach to repertoire has effectively become the aesthetic benchmark for much improvised music at the turn of the new century, as represented by the Erstwhile oeuvre: "I don't think I know of any other group that set out to work without a repertoire before AMM. That is a very significant part of what we are about. AMM has always been about searching for the sound in the performance. A seismic shift in mentality in music." Old-style rapid-fire acoustic improv, which consciously or not recalls its ancestry in the Dionysian excesses of free jazz, is of little interest either to Rowe or to Erstwhile's Jon Abbey. On the other hand, the stripped-to-the-bone style of improvising known for better or worse as "onkyo" that arose in Japan partially out of the ashes of Otomo Yoshihide's Ground Zero (the empty sampler of Sachiko M, the inputless mixing board of Toshi Nakamura, not to mention the unadorned turntable of Otomo himself) and similarly lowercase developments in Europe (the part-composed, part-improvised strategies of Werner Dafeldecker's Polwechsel and Boris Hauf's Efzeg in Vienna, and the work of a group of Berlin-based musicians known collectively as Phosphor, including Axel Dörner, Andrea Neumann and Burkhard Beins) reveal clear antecedents in the AMM aesthetic, and have not surprisingly featured prominently in the Erstwhile catalogue.

When Abbey came to put the finishing touches to the programming for the second Erstwhile AMPLIFY festival, which took place in Tokyo's Star Pine's Café between October 18th and 20th 2002, he naturally chose musicians whose work reflected the abovementioned stance: in addition to Keith Rowe, from the host country came Otomo, Nakamura and Sachiko M, along with guitarists Taku Sugimoto and Tetuzi Akiyama, vocalist Ami Yoshida and her occasional synth sparring partner Utah Kawasaki; from Germany, laptops in hand, came Marcus Schmickler and Christof Kurzmann (originally from Vienna, now resident in Berlin), along with Thomas Lehn and his analogue synthesizer; from Switzerland and Austria respectively came Günter Müller (with Minidiscs, iPod and small items of percussion) and Burkhard Stangl (guitars). Guitarist Oren Ambarchi tagged along en route back home to Australia and played at some of the off-festival events. All the performers with the exception of Akiyama, Kawasaki and Ambarchi had previously appeared on Erstwhile releases, and this was reflected by the programming: on the first evening Sachiko M and Yoshida performed as Cosmos (cf Tears, Erstwhile 024), followed by the Rowe / Lehn / Schmickler trio (Rabbit Run, Erstwhile 027) and the Stangl / Kurzmann duo (Schnee, Erstwhile 008). (The only group that night that had not featured on Abbey's label - and is probably unlikely to do so again - was Taku Sugimoto's Guitar Quartet.) The second day's running order was as follows: a duo between Müller and Otomo (their first public appearance as a duo, though they had recorded what was eventually released as Time Travel, Erstwhile 029, two days prior to this), Lehn and Schmickler (cf Bart, Erstwhile 012), Sugimoto / Stangl / Kurzmann (who had not recorded as a trio for Erstwhile but had already performed at Tokyo's Off Site in 2001 and released the result on the Polish label Musica Genera) and finally Rowe and Nakamura (reprising their collaboration that resulted in Weather Sky, Erstwhile 018). The third day began with Yoshida's Astro Twin duo with Kawasaki, continued with a premiere collaboration between Stangl and Müller, and a Nakamura / Sachiko M duo (cf do, Erstwhile 013), proceedings coming to a close with the Sugimoto / Rowe / Müller trio that had recorded The World Turned Upside Down almost three years to the day earlier in Paris.

Jon Abbey presumably had the idea of the AMPLIFY02 box in mind long before he boarded his flight for Tokyo; rumours that a box set was in the offing began circulating even before half the musicians had made it back home after the festival. (An even more spectacular example of Erstwhile advance planning was his decision to release a recording of the concert in Bologna featuring pianist John Tilbury and MIMEO, the "concerto for piano and electronic orchestra" eventually entitled The Hands Of Caravaggio (Erstwhile 021), an intention made clear to the press well before the concert itself actually occurred - the story of that event and the subsequent album has been documented elsewhere). Producing such a document - selecting material, mixing, mastering, preparing text, graphics and packaging, not to mention promoting the thing when it hits the streets - would be a huge undertaking even for a major record label; for what is essentially a one-man outfit such as Erstwhile it's nothing short of noble. Apart from Abbey's seemingly limitless energy (Werner Dafeldecker once described him as "the fastest man on Earth": try sending Jon an email at 4am local time and you'll be surprised how fast he replies), special mention ought to be made of the contributions of Erstwhile house designer Friederike Paetzold, Yuko Zama (photography), Earl Howard and Toshimaru Nakamura (mastering) and filmmaker Jonas Leddington, of whom more later.
The AMPLIFY02 box includes no fewer than seven CDs of music recorded in and around the festival, plus Leddington's specially commissioned DVD documentary on the proceedings, balance beams. CD 1 features four cuts from outside shows; two of these were recorded at Gendai Heights on October 16th and feature Thomas Lehn and Toshimaru Nakamura (Taku Sugimoto sits in on the second), one four days earlier at Off Site (with Nakamura, Tetuzi Akiyama and Günter Müller) and one after the festival on October 23rd at Appel, featuring Christof Kurzmann and Nakamura. The second disc, tint, is a studio recording from October 13th featuring the omnipresent Nakamura and Günter Müller. Disc 3 features music recorded on the first evening of the festival proper, the sets by Cosmos (Sachiko M and Ami Yoshida) and the Rowe / Lehn / Schmickler trio; disc 4 comes from the second night's proceedings, and includes Müller's set with Otomo and the Lehn / Schmickler duo. Disc 5 features the Sugimoto / Stangl / Kurzmann trio and the Rowe / Nakamura duo, also from the festival's second night, while disc 6 includes Stangl and Müller's set from the third evening, and ends with Nakamura and Sachiko M. The final disc was recorded on October 21st and features the full seven guitar line-up - Rowe, Akiyama, Ambarchi, Nakamura, Yoshihide, Stangl and Sugimoto - in two extended pieces, the first a reading of pages 82 - 84 from Cornelius Cardew's "Treatise" (Keith Rowe's bedside reading for the past thirty odd years), the second a 31-minute improvisation.
Erstwhile productions have hitherto been refreshingly free of accompanying liner notes (additional essays were prepared to accompany The Hands Of Caravaggio but these were not included with the disc itself, remaining instead on the label's website); the AMPLIFY02 box, however, comes with a 52-page booklet, 33 pages of which feature texts by no fewer than 20 people, including most of the musicians and Abbey himself. Some of these are eloquent and poetic - I particularly like Utah Kawasaki's: "I am very curious about what kind of music these festival musicians (including myself) will be playing 5 or 10 years later, or what kind of music they will not be playing by then" - but many could quite easily have been dispensed with, from Oren Ambarchi's raving about local restaurants to Kurzmann's heartfelt but hardly relevant anti-war slogans.

As for the music, the word that comes to mind upon listening, and one I often find myself using in connection with recent improvisation, is austere - even, at times, dour. There's little evidence of a sense of humour, though these musicians, many of whom I'm fortunate enough to have spent some time with myself, certainly aren't bereft of one (the footage of the performers laughing their heads off over dinner on the DVD is refreshing proof of the fact). When it comes to performing, though, it's strictly business: the Erstwhile stable has yet to include a musician as impishly perverse as Misha Mengelberg or as deadpan hilarious as Lol Coxhill (the closest the label has come so far to outright hilarity, albeit tinged with sarcasm, is the anarchic deconstruction of tacky French pop on eRIKm and Jérôme Noetinger's What a Wonderful World). The recollections of another Erstwhile artist, trombonist Radu Malfatti, on his involvement with the improvised music scene in London in the 1970s come to mind: "Gradually it became more and more a status quo: improvisers had to act and react in a precise way in order to be accepted as improvisers. "Rules" emerged and certain ways of playing were "forbidden" and became unacceptable - stagnation took place and a pure, idiomatic way of playing was born." Indeed, there's a revealing moment on the DVD showing the Sugimoto Guitar Quartet in between sets merrily jamming away, but when show time rolls round it's time to play by the book: i.e. one note every minute - a kind of negative image, as it were, of a "normal" performance situation where the musician tunes his/her instrument as discreetly as possible and studiously avoids playing too much until the concert actually begins.
Igor Stravinsky's famous definition of music as a "jeu de notes" no longer applies here; the only players here who reveal any apparent concern for pitch as a parameter worth exploring are Stangl and Sugimoto (who, although he plays precious few notes, still has a knack for finding the right ones). The developments of post-war serialism on the one hand and Cageian experimentalism on the other have effectively put paid to the notion that music (Western music particularly) is still dominated by the two principal parameters of pitch - either stated horizontally as melody, or vertically as harmony - and rhythm - the idea of pulse, regular or otherwise. The complexity of Darmstadt-style total serialism rendered the perception of what was going on at a structural level in both domains so difficult as to be well-nigh impossible (for performer and listener alike), while the loosening of constraints and welcoming of indeterminacy on the part of the American experimentalists (a much misunderstood move, often erroneously interpreted as "anything goes") threw the doors and windows open to extraneous noise, accident and (apparent) formlessness. The pioneering work of the New York School with regard to notation was, in the early 1960s, a huge influence on the British composer Cornelius Cardew, whose monumental "Treatise" remains perhaps the nec plus ultra of graphic notation. Cardew's subsequent involvement as an improvising cellist with AMM led to contacts being established between that group and pioneering American experimental composers Cage and Wolff, and while Cage, Earle Brown and Morton Feldman are no longer with us and Wolff has returned to (semi) traditional notation in his scores, Keith Rowe's enthusiastic championship of Cardew and his "Treatise" ensures that the issues raised by the late composer and his work remain at the forefront of musical thought. The inclusion of several pages of "Treatise" on disc seven of the AMPLIFY02 box should come then as no surprise, but one wonders what Cardew - especially the militant socialist Cardew who repudiated much of his earlier avant-garde experimentation in favour of writing banal (and frankly hideous) folk-based music to be sung by the oppressed workers of the world - would have made of the guitar septet version on offer here.

In a revealing extract from the 2001 interview, Keith Rowe described his highly acclaimed solo album on Grob, Harsh, as "something that's very important to me. I wanted to make something that was not very liked, [..] not obviously a well-rounded performance, something which wasn't aesthetic, [..] wasn't that satisfying." In a similar aside featured on the DVD, he speaks of a desire to make the music "quite flat, encouraging people to come towards the performance.." The use of that word "flat" is significant, in that it points clearly back to Rowe's formative experiences as a visual artist - we're talking flat in terms of a canvas, not in terms of a soda that's lost its fizz - but it also raises the crucial question of value judgement with respect to (this and, for that matter, any other) music. Rowe's doggedly individual pursuit of the sound in performance, and his steadfast refusal to rest on his laurels, is to be applauded as a sure sign of his artistic integrity, but prompts the question as to what he (or Abbey) considers to be performances worthy of release as opposed to those he'd happily consign to the trashcan. Most musicians have a clear preference for the well-rounded, balanced performance (those epithets being broadly synonymous with "successful"), the one that "takes off" - improvisers in particular are extremely aware of the moments in the music that "work", and speak quite openly of one performance being quite clearly "better" than another. (Nor should readers have any illusions: many improvising musicians are more than happy to use the latest available software to edit live recordings and remove the bits they don't like - very few "warts'n'all" performances make it to disc..) On closer analysis it seems that the criteria that are brought to bear on such decisions are none other than the age-old questions of form and content; not that a piece should slavishly adhere to the noble architectural structures (strictures?) of sonata form, rondo, theme and variations (delete as appropriate), but that there remains - both in the music at a deep formal level and on its surface at local level - a sense of progression from one point to another, a vestige of the idea of development, of taking a musical idea (be it a pitch, melody, chord, timbre, noise or whatever) and subjecting it to some form of transformation (extension, transposition, intensification, distortion and so forth). Keith Rowe is as uncompromisingly self-critical as a John Butcher or a Bhob Rainey, but the question remains as how he defines "good" and "bad", given that the music he makes seems for the most part to be completely unconcerned with such questions of development. He describes Harsh as not being rounded, not aesthetic, not satisfying but he presumably deemed it sufficiently successful to warrant its release. When and how can a "bad" (or "rough" or "unbalanced") piece be considered a "good" one? Taku Sugimoto's typically enigmatic comments in his contribution to the booklet of liner notes here would seem to indicate that he, at least, was not entirely convinced that the performances at AMPLIFY02 were all that successful: "The festival was worth much to me as a funeral of Onkyo or electro-acoustic music. [..] What we need is a grave after the funeral service. The music is not so great but the grave looks so gorgeous!" Such observations probably reveal more about Sugimoto and his present preoccupations than they do the music itself, though I am tempted to wonder - if some unknown young laptopper / table guitarist had sent some of these selfsame recordings to Abbey, would he have accepted them for release?
While unwanted moments, blasts of noise, software glitches and other happy (for Rowe) accidents are part and parcel of live performance, the advantage of a studio session (and subsequent hours of mixing and mastering) is obviously that the musicians and the producer can select and edit material more rigorously. The odd man out disc in the AMPLIFY02 box is just such an example, a studio recording featuring Günter Müller and Toshimaru Nakamura made five days before the festival proper. The five tracks, all entitled "tint" (in fact ".tint", "..tint", "...tint", etc. - you get the picture), are fine examples of the finesse that comes from careful post-production. It's perhaps a shame that this excellent piece of work comes as part and parcel of the box, rather than being available separately (as is Müller's duo album with Otomo, Time Travel, also recorded in Tokyo at this time), since it's one of the best studio releases on the label so far.

The meat of the AMPLIFY02 box is to be found on the two double CDs that document the three days of the festival itself. Disc 3 kicks off with the 24-minute set by Cosmos, which is slightly less acerbic than the duo's previous Erstwhile outing Tears, but no less enthralling (providing, of course, you enjoy Sachiko M's distinctive empty sampler sinewaves - admittedly an acquired taste). Ami Yoshida is, fortunately, as fascinating to listen to as she is to look at - not having had the pleasure of seeing her perform live, I find the images of her in action on the DVD especially captivating. Along with the venerable Phil Minton she must be the most original vocal improviser around at the moment, but whereas he lurches, grimaces, gargles and bellows, Yoshida produces her sounds with the strict minimum of movement and expression - and phenomenal mic technique.
Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler's Bart (Erstwhile 012) remains to date the noisiest and most energetic release on the label; Abbey, seduced by a numerology of his own invention, originally intended Erstwhile 024 - two times twelve - to be a trio sequel, with Lehn and Schmickler being joined by Keith Rowe. As things turned out, their recording Rabbit Run was released as Erst 027, but its cut and thrust remained nonetheless true to the spirit of Bart (the optional playback of the disc on random shuffle further emphasising the fragmentary, work-in-progress aesthetic). When the trio came to perform live in Tokyo, however, things became more sedate. Their music has, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot in common with the Cosmos set that immediately preceded it - small but significant events are set against a stable backdrop, tiny fragments of sound flit in and out of focus, like nocturnal insects circling a fluorescent light. Old school language-based models of free improvisation, ideas of motivic exchange and development originating in the music's free jazz past (and, going further back, the traditional call-response structure of earlier African musics) have gone out of the window - Lehn, Schmickler and Rowe are engaged here in collaborative tone painting rather than dialogue. Insofar as Rowe's intention, through creating that above-mentioned flatness, is to draw the listener in to the work, this 39 minute set is a total success, perhaps more so than Rabbit Run. Several years ago John Zorn reissued his early Parachute recordings in a box set before subsequently releasing them as individual Tzadik albums - it's to be hoped Abbey might, at some stage, follow suit and issue separately some of the recordings included in the AMPLIFY02 box. He could do well to start with this one (and tint, as suggested above).
Günter Müller's set with Otomo Yoshihide on Disc 4 clearly inhabits the same world, but starts out following a more traditional formal trajectory, building ominously and steadily over the first eight minutes before stepping back from the abyss and fading progressively towards the 14'30" mark - there's a case to be made for adding an index point here. The second movement, as it were, becomes more animated - Müller's background as a percussionist makes itself felt on a number of occasions: this is one of the few recordings in the box that plays with an element of pulse. Erstwhile productions usually studiously avoid loop-based material, which makes its brief appearance here even more exciting. Unfortunately it doesn't go far enough, and by the 27-minute mark things have settled down into a growling drone that ultimately settles on a rich low C# nine minutes later.
The last time I saw Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler perform live, at the Instants Chavirés in Paris, Lehn wasn't entirely satisfied with the performance (the fact that Schmickler had to reboot his Mac halfway through probably didn't help matters much), but the duo's set at Amplify 2002 doesn't disappoint. When it gets going it's very much Bart live, with all the high-octane spluttering and frequent changes of direction that implies, and it's a shame there isn't more music of a similar energy and madness to be found in the box. It's Erstwhile business as usual on disc 5, which opens with a trio set featuring guitarists Sugimoto and Stangl, accompanied by Christof Kurzmann on Powerbook and clarinet. Those familiar with Stangl and Sugimoto's An Old Fashioned Duet on Sugimoto's Slub Music imprint, or the trio's Musica Genera release In Tokyo: First Concert Second Take (Musica Genera mg 002) will know the rules of the game. Often broadly tonal - diatonic, rather - in its choice of pitch, the music advances slowly and steadily like a game of chess. Stangl seems conscious of his fellow guitarist's apparent propensity to play fewer notes with each successive concert (though Sugimoto's quite chattery here by his recent standards), and compensates with some gently percussive work on the body of the instrument. Kurzmann is the model of discretion throughout, either on clarinet (breathy flutters) or on computer, painting the de rigueur drizzle'n'hum backdrop in front of which the guitarists perform their delicate manoeuvres. The activity level remains relatively constant, and dynamics never rise above a gentle piano until proceedings end somewhat enigmatically; was the recording faded out or did the set really end with that questioning rising seventh? One imagines Morton Feldman would have approved.
In contrast - not in terms of its dynamics, which remain ever muted - Keith Rowe's set with Toshimaru Nakamura is unremittingly intense. By comparison, the pair's earlier Weather Sky sounds almost relaxed. The earlier post-Industrial loops of Nakamura's solo albums, particularly No-Input Mixing Board2 (A Bruit Secret) and the gentle minimalism of his recent outing on Cubic, Vehicle, are still there, but seem to have receded into the distance. Nakamura is a highly attentive musician who responds to the input of his playing partners - witness his excellent and often overlooked duo outing with Bruno Meillier, Siphono, on SMI - but when those partners are seemingly content to sit on a drone he's not averse to taking the initiative himself: the grainy loop he slips in after about nine minutes finally coerces Rowe into abandoning his trademark stasis and retaliating with several well-aimed thuds. Working with feedback loops is a dangerous business though, and Nakamura often has to break out of the cycle by stopping the loop altogether, which is what he does here at the 14-minute mark. This has the effect of almost capsizing the boat - there's a terrific feedback howl at 15'05" that forces both musicians to retreat uphill into Sachiko M territory: it's the kind of moment of outright danger that Rowe evidently enjoys, and one that most improvisers would probably wince at, but it's absolutely riveting. One suspects that had such a moment occurred in a studio session the pair might not have selected it for release, but this was a concert situation - and proof that live improvised music doesn't have to be voluble and virtuoso to be breathtakingly dangerous. Even so, Rowe and Nakamura never quite recover from the trauma; Nakamura inserts a few brief looped motives but they never manage to break through the electric fence of amp buzz.
Disc 6 opens with one of the festival's "world premiere" collaborations (these used to be called "meetings" or "encounters", but this is Erstwhile..), between guitarist Burkhard Stangl and Günter Müller. Stangl is once again quite active at the outset, twanging away on his acoustic until Müller's refusal to get busy gradually leads him towards the more sustained sonorities of the electric instruments. It all becomes very consensual: the kind of friction that a guitarist like Derek Bailey thrives on (witness his duo collaborations as diverse as Outcome with Steve Lacy (Potlatch) or the notorious Guitar Drums 'n' Bass with DJ Ninj (Avant)) is conspicuous in its absence; instead, individual contributions eventually fuse into a kind of meta-identity, that of the group itself. This is directly in line with the AMM aesthetic (recalling this eloquent passage from Rowe's interview: "In AMM philosophy three is four: the three players plus the group itself makes four. It's like the Chinese story of the man drinking a glass of wine in moonlight whose shadow becomes the third member of the company. AMM's a quartet with an invisible member"). However, towards the end of the set the glue seems to come somewhat unstuck; Stangl sits on his arpeggiated chords while Müller's bowed gongs are brutally interrupted by a volley of abrasive disc-skipping clicks, which ultimately stop the drone in its tracks. An intriguing end to a problematic half hour of music.
In the same way that their Erstwhile release do is arguably the label's most challenging release to date, the brief set featuring Sachiko M and Nakamura (I'm assuming this is the entire piece - both artists have after all been known to play for relatively short durations) is perhaps the most extreme offering in the AMPLIFY02 box. Avoiding his customary pick-up-a-loop-and-run-with-it technique, Nakamura's interjections here consist of decidedly rough, sporadic bursts of harsh - I choose the word deliberately - digital noise, interfacing more with the tense silence than with Sachiko's static sinewaves. Audience members throughout the festival and specifically during this set deserve a complimentary box of discs themselves - presumably transfixed by the performance, there's not the slightest sound of shuffling in seats, squeaks, ambient nattering from outside and barely half a dozen coughs throughout (I hereby advise Mr Abbey not to organise a future edition of AMPLIFY in Paris' Instants Chavirés - not, that is, if he has any intention of recording it). If the duty of the musician today is, as Rowe defines his own work, to confront "difficult knowledge" then these 21 and a half minutes represent noble work. Whether they can be deemed "successful" or "good" seems somewhat beside the point; this is music certainly worthy of admiration, though it is difficult to love.
The first half of disc 7 is given over to a reading by the Erstwhile All Stars Guitar Septet of three pages from Cornelius Cardew's "Treatise". Of the many graphic and verbal scores of experimental music that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, "Treatise" is the work that seems to have attracted the most attention in recent years, at least on the part of improvising musicians (for which we have Mr Rowe to thank, though it'd be nice to hear some of today's improvisers tackle works of the same period by Wolff, Ashley, Bussotti and Haubenstock-Ramati one day). It's also one of the less difficult, or rather more easily realisable, scores, being open to a remarkable number of possible interpretations. Cardew deliberately left questions of interpretation up to the performers, hence Rowe's remarks on the work: "I try to approach it like a landscape. There are lots of different ways of reading it; you can read the actual symbols and shapes, or you can read between the symbols and shapes, which would be more of a Marxist way of doing it, or you can do a perverse reading of it, like [British composer] John White would..". His pre-concert pep talk-cum-lecture to the six other guitarists, which appears with the performance as an extra on the DVD, makes it clear that there are no rules, and stresses the responsibility of each musician to create his own personal system of interpretation of Cardew's graphics (it's somewhat surprising, then, that Rowe recently took offence at another French improvising guitarist's recent "interpretation" of the work..). It's a shame that Abbey couldn't have dispensed with a few pages of anecdotal liner notes and fuzzy arty photos in order to reproduce the pages of Cardew's score in question (though they do appear briefly in the video). The performance by Messrs Rowe, Ambarchi, Akiyama, Nakamura, Sugimoto, Stangl and Otomo, and the subsequent 38-minute improvisation (which sounds alarmingly similar in places to the Cardew - must be a moral in there..), are pleasant enough but hardly as intense and exciting as the material recorded at the festival proper. Put more than one guitarist in a room together and you're more or less guaranteed to end up with semi-aimless noodling (remember Stangl and Sugimoto's outing with Martin Siewert and Werner Dafeldecker on Grob, SSSD?); nobody wants to step on anyone else's toes or showboat, so it ends up as a pretty but rather inconsequential patchwork quilt of trademark licks. You'll be surprised how easy it is to recognise the individual guitarists here. Disc 7 would be just fine if it had appeared on a second division label such as Bottrop Boy, but it doesn't meet the same high standards as the recordings from Star Pine's Café.

If, like me, you live with someone who can appreciate a concert of improvised music but who has a hard time listening to it on disc, you'll appreciate Jonas Leddington's outstanding balance beams DVD (even more so if you're a devotee of Surround Sound audio, as the Rowe / Lehn / Schmickler and Müller / Otomo sets are both included as audio extras: good choice). Leddington's stunning montage gives the lie to the oft-stated rumour that there's little of interest to look at in today's improv concerts, especially when laptops are involved. True, watching Keith Rowe weave a tiny coiled spring between the strings of his guitar isn't exactly as thrilling as seeing the veins on Peter Brötzmann's forehead burst and spatter the audience with blood, but the visual element is certainly appreciated when it comes to Taku Sugimoto's performance, most of which these days is visual anyway (watch out.. he moved!). Indeed, the footage of the Sugimoto Guitar Quartet is amusing, in that the camera tends to pan away from a musician just at the moment when he's about to play one of the all-too-rare notes. Elsewhere, interspersing the concerts with shots of Tokyo - notably its public transport system and architecture - provides both depth, context and welcome relief (and for those of us who haven't yet travelled that far and who would probably bankrupt themselves buying out-of-print vinyl if they ever did, space to dream..). The featured comments of the musicians themselves are of varying degrees of relevance: Rowe's reminiscences of his art school background and Müller's views on the non-linearity of the music are informative and illustrative, but Marcus Schmickler's gushing appreciation of Thomas Lehn and his somewhat unclear retelling of the famous John Cage story about the Harvard anechoic chamber could easily have been dispensed with. Likewise, I'm not convinced that the DVD's final image, one of Mr Abbey himself sitting contentedly in the audience after being acclaimed for his bravery from the stage by Keith Rowe, is the best way to go out, though one might argue that having invested so much time and money in the event and the documentation thereof, he was entitled to have his picture taken - personally I prefer record producers, festival promoters and especially journalists to stay out of sight as far as possible.

All things considered, it's fair to assume that the limited edition run of the AMPLIFY02 box will sell out fast - it undoubtedly merits inclusion in any self-respecting reference collection. University, music school and college record librarians throughout the world will no doubt have already added it to the shopping list, and though it is obviously too early for it to claim the kind of mythic status associated with AMM's The Crypt, I'm prepared to wager a small sum that it will eventually find a place in the history books. Happily though - and here I'll disagree with Taku Sugimoto - the story is not over yet: as I write, the indefatigable Abbey is in Vienna recording another chapter of the Erstwhile saga with Axel Dörner, Franz Hautzinger and - yes, you guessed right - Keith Rowe. AMPLIFY02 is, then, not so much a gravestone as a milestone. I do, however, agree with Sugimoto's assessment of the music; Rowe's quest for the inherently problematic may be laudable but should not be used as a convenient excuse to release material that is not consistently first-rate. If you're going to invest $150 in something as ambitious as this, you have a perfect right to expect the music to be absolutely astounding, and in my humble opinion the absolutely astounding music on the Erstwhile label is to be found on albums like The World Turned Upside Down, Schnee and Duos for Doris, and occasionally - but not often enough - in the AMPLIFY02 box. —DW
[Thanks to Yuko Zama for photographs and Nate Dorward for additional help proofreading]

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Pop Involved

Tu m'
Aesova AE5CD01A
Nathan Michel
Mr Mutt Mlive 04
Happy HAP001
The title of Tu m''s 2002 outing on Fällt, Pop Involved, says it all. At a time when most youngsters seem to be huddled in front of their laptops producing grey sheets of unremittingly dull TV static drizzle, burning it on CDRs, putting it under their pillows at bedtime and dreaming of Erstwhile, Rossano Polidoro and Emiliano Romanelli are having the time of their lives sampling old Steve Reich albums on top of a mountain in central Italy. Exactly who the Magical Mystery Orchestra is isn't clear, though its members seem to include several old minimalists from bygone days, crunched up in the Tu m' glitch machine and reformatted for the post-Fennesz generation. It's mildly irreverent, fun, and decidedly pop (if a bit on the long side).
Not content with making music themselves, the Italians are enthusiastic champions of other people's, and their excellent Mr Mutt CDR label (limited edition of 200 only - hurry!) has already released exquisite work by Minamo and Sogar. Nathan Michel's Trebly is a pure pop delight, recalling those happy days of yore spent twiddling around with sequencers on old Casios and Rolands, except this is all done live on Mr Michel's computer. It's all there: the tinny drum machine sounds, the crappy DIY Phil Glass arpeggios, cunningly intercut with state of the art bloops, cracks and splats. Defiantly tonal, damn near danceable, it's pop for the third millennium par excellence.
Across the Atlantic, even Taylor Deupree, manager of the 12k label, has been infected by the pop virus, though from another direction: inaugurating his new Happy imprint is Snowbird by Piana, aka Naoko Sasami, who skilfully ruffles the pink, fluffy surface of Japanese pop with subtle (for once) glitchnology. Cornelius would be proud; so would Erik Satie and the Penguin Café Orchestra. And what's more there are vocals on this one, though not being able to speak a word of Japanese I can't tell you what they're about. But since when did the words matter in pop music anyway? —JB

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In Concert: Aki Onda / Jac Berrocal

Paris, Sentier des Halles
26th October 2003
The room is half-moon shaped, small and intimate, with light fixtures on the ceiling. Four small, round red lights hang on the wall behind the stage, facing the audience. It's like being in a Métro tunnel, in between stations. I'm in a crowd of people waiting to be electronically stimulated, Paris-style, as part of the third annual Tokyozone festival. Japanese electronic wizard Aki Onda appears nonchalantly in a cream-colored blazer (without acknowledging the public) and right away sets about putting his noise-making system into effect: samplers, tape loops and other electronic boxes are set out neatly on an L-shaped table in front of him, along with a couple dozen cassettes. A mere flick of a switch unleashes a barrage of screeches, hums, drones and voices, a psychedelic wall of sound. It's fascinating to watch Onda operate; with a small cassette player in both hands, he changes tapes often, moving around quietly, yet nervously, pushing buttons and looking back and forth along the tables as if looking for bugs to zap with his cassette player.
After a half hour of tunnel space sounds, France's veteran enfant terrible, trumpeter Jac Berrocal, appears in dark sunglasses and outfit, looking the part. Working with two mics, each with its own degree of echo and delay, he immediately adds quite a dimension, at first using his trumpet to augment Onda's soundworld, but playing actual music, just enough to take the experience to another level, one of mystery, apprehension - and sheer madness. He keeps us wondering what's going to come next - this is what true experimental music is all about.
Berrocal uses other horns too, as well as a flute, and seems at first quite content to add his spontaneous, dark textures to the proceedings rather than dominate the stage, but before long he can't resist becoming the focal point. Putting horns aside, he steps up to the mic and takes the audience by surprise with a veritable rant: speaking, growling, screaming, he sounds at times as if he's fronting a death metal band. Onda's sounds take on menacing new meaning. Intense as well as comical (at least to this spectator), Berrocal has everyone's attention. Perhaps conscious of the fact, he graciously acknowledges his playing partner on several occasions during the hour-long show and thanks the crowd with "arigato beaucoup", while Onda himself remains cool and unassuming, seemingly comfortable with letting Berrocal have the spotlight - not that he has any say in the matter.. —DG

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Brent Gutzeit

Kissy kis001
This splendid outing from TV Pow's Brent Gutzeit was "recorded in my apartment except track 8 which was at the Fireside Bowl, Chicago. I used an old Knight tube audio generator, "the Fisher" tube amplifier (model 90c), handmade 20 string steel bass. Pianos recorded at Odum and Tim Kinsella's place." It's something of a trend for today's improvisers and sound artists to list their equipment and sound sources (Jeff Wrench, aka Brutum Fulmen, is also fond of doing it), and not always of great importance to listeners (cf. Nate Dorward's review of Ernesto Diaz-Infante in last month's PT). Though it may be of minor interest to know that Mr Kinsella has a piano (and, we suppose, Mr Gutzeit doesn't), what matters more in this music is how sonic raw material of an often-banal nature is transformed into something musically satisfying. In this respect, Losing Every Day is a veritable triumph. The one piece of equipment Gutzeit doesn't mention in his inventory is his computer, but those who have been following his innovative work with TV Pow over the past few years will testify to his considerable chops on the instrument. That last bit will probably sound funny to jazz aficionados, but the laptop has undoubtedly established itself over recent years as an instrument in its own right, and Gutzeit belongs to a group of virtuoso operators - Christian Fennesz, Florian Hecker, Peter Rehberg, Phil Durrant, Christof Kurzmann, and a whole host of others - who can certainly be said to possess "chops" (though watching these guys do it live isn't always exactly, erm, interesting). Face it, kids, there are a lot of Powerbooks out there, and thousands of would-be Fenneszes squiggling and clicking away as we speak, but when all's said and done it still comes back to having an inherent feel not only for the sound material itself but for a structural framework that incorporates it intelligently to its best advantage. The eight tracks on Losing Every Day, which range from the twelve minute opener "the latest flint narrative" ('scuse me for sticking with lowercase, I don't know if that's supposed to be "flint" as in Stone Age tool or "Flint" as in James Coburn) to the fifty-second finale, and excerpt from "composition #30: for turntable, cigarette and computer (chicago loves you)" are all impressively coherent - and refreshingly extreme.
The opening track is a teaser, an almost Day-Glo soft minor ninth chord drifting into near silence (what, so soon?) until a blast of digital terror rips the speakers off the wall, to be followed by a queasy pitch-shifting chord. By now we're on our guard: the second explosion isn't exactly a surprise, but the ensuing action is unremittingly tense, moving from a cloud of bell-like sonorities into a tense montage of tiny noises, any of which could fly off the handle at any moment. Gutzeit's evidently got a great sense of pacing and structure, and one that stems from familiarity with the best late twentieth century music (and arguably a fascination with the shock tactics of the best horror movies). We're on the edge of the seat, and we're only eight minutes into the album; who gives a damn if it was a model 90c tube amp? "perpetuating the lost cause" begins with the kind of flurry of nastiness Kevin Drumm's quite good at, before settling (?) into a dull, domestic appliance-like murky hum. Teeth-grinding high frequencies soon come screaming in, but the whole edifice soon comes crashing back to Drummland. In contrast, "caught staring at the sun again" disappears after a couple minutes into a near-inaudible haze of tiny clicks, resurfacing a while later to dwell in a frequency range that will have sensitive domestic animals dancing in delight; "schweebur" mixes distant traffic noise and birdsong (Gutzeit must have been recording from his open window) with a multitude of tiny clicks and whooshes, presumably household objects placed in dangerous proximity to the mic. Following without a break, "So… why don't you just get a job?" (nice title, that) sounds like a concert performance of Xenakis' "Kraanerg" inside a steel factory - if this is what your apartment sounds like, Brent, you must have a great technique for dealing with your neighbours: send me mail, I need some advice - after which "before the fall of the American empire" (the capital A my idea this time, though some might not think it's deserved) is a distressingly near-empty assemblage of pops and bangs. In "sterile grey" a raw microtonal cluster drone holds centre stage while some unsettling creaks and scrapes try and break through to the sonic foreground, until the drone plunges into extreme low frequency register, leaving only sporadic hocketing interference patterns in its wake. Not exactly cheery stuff, to be sure (though with a title like that, what did you expect?) but superbly effective: its sombre resonances create a kind of sonic Zen garden, a predominantly static sound environment that invites us to meditate on what has gone before. This is where composition comes in - had this track been placed near the beginning of the disc, the architecture of the album as a whole would be perceived as being profoundly different. When the high drone and creaks reappear, there's a sense of closure, but Gutzeit's got a nasty surprise in store: the final track, which sounds like what's left of the Fireside Bowl being mercilessly trashed. I hope to goodness they didn't get their hands on your computer, Brent. —DW

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On Incus

Will Gaines and Derek Bailey
Incus CD 55
Incus CD 56
Incus's formal CD catalogue grew at a modest pace in 2003, with the addition of these two, very different but equally offbeat discs (though this is only part of the story: many of the label's releases nowadays are CD-Rs that are only available direct from Derek Bailey). Rappin and Tappin features Bailey and the American tap dancer Will Gaines, a veteran of the swing era who has been resident in Britain for many years. Their musical relationship has been documented several times before, on the video Will (an English concert from 1995) and on the CD Company in Marseille (from 1999); Rappin and Tappin is actually earlier than either of these, being drawn from a 1994 concert in Holland. The first part features Gaines alone, reminiscing about his life and about great tap dancers from Bill Robinson to Baby Laurence while his feet put on a furious, non-stop show. On occasion he breaks into demonstrations of the stylistic changes in tap dance's history or shows off his uncanny ability to convey a tune with just his footwork; more often, though, he works in his own intricate, scatterbomb style, which is sometimes almost beyond the ear's capacity to follow. Gaines' voice should have been miked more precisely - it shoots back and forth between the speakers and snaps in and out of focus - but this is a small quibble about a beguiling, ultimately rather moving performance. Bailey enters for the second set, playing electric guitar. His rhythmic precision is brought to the fore in this situation: his sense of placement is so exact that it can give you the illusion of hearing off-beats even in free-time. All the familiar Bailey devices are present - the mouth-puckering chords that twist suspended in the air or sink in like a stain, the use of the swell pedal to elude rather than come after the listener, the curtly chopped chords, the busily detailed picking kept at the edge of clear audibility by a drop in amplification - while, as always, subtly recast in response to the unusual musical context. This is one of Bailey's most purely sympathetic partnerships on record in recent years (it feels odd to say that of a man who's recorded some memorably cussed duet albums), and it's an album emphatically not to be dismissed as a curiosity.
The instrumentation of the Limescale quintet comes across as half Dada cabaret, half 1920s novelty music - Bailey on guitar, Alex Ward on clarinet, Tony Bevan on bass saxophone, and the pseudonymous pair of THF Drenching and Sonic Pleasure wielding (respectively) dictaphone and bricks - but the results are less anarchic than one might expect. The general garrulousness and consistency of approach (the first four tracks, ranging from 6 to 17 minutes in length, are virtually indistinguishable in terms of pace and aural palette) end up almost normalizing the music for all its initial appearance of bizarreness; there's almost no sign here of the dangerously mercurial swings of direction or downright lunacy of your average Chadbourne or Bennink album. (That may be a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view.) Playing acoustic guitar for the duration, Bailey keeps to the hiding-in-plain-sight tactic he favours in large ensembles. It's Ward's highly varied clarinet lines that stand out most prominently; they have an ironized elegance that's still audible even when he drops a conventionally demure clarinet tone for some ferocious and impressively controlled high-register work. Ms Pleasure chips in (sometimes literally: she uses a chisel on occasion) with taps and clinks that suggest a bored child at a restaurant banging a knife on plates and glasses; Bevan roots around assiduously for truffles; Drenching contributes burbling fast-forward/rewind dictaphone interjections whose disgusting lability resembles the sounds of mouth-cavity and saliva rather than voice per se. The results are entertaining in small doses, but this is a very large dose - over an hour's music - and ultimately it's a bit of a one-joke album. I'm also skeptical about the dictaphone and bricks, however appealingly ludicrous they are in principle. Many players in the current improv scene have turned to uncommon or downright improbable instruments, as a way of staking out fresh musical territory and minimizing reliance on the aesthetics and musical solutions of previous generations of improvising saxophonists, pianists, bassists, &c. Hence the prevalence of contact-mics, harp, laptops, no-input mixing board and empty sampler in the (so-called) lowercase-improv scene. But the dictaphone playing and brick banging on Limescale don't open up unexplored sonic worlds: they work amusing but painfully limited variations on the familiar roles of improvising vocalist and pots-and-pans percussion.
For the record, Limescale has its serious proponents, and The Wire has even announced it as among the most important releases of 2003, in its December "Rewind" feature. In the same issue Bailey biographer Ben Watson listed it as his favourite disc of the year. (Hardly surprisingly: it's tempting to think of Limescale as nearly as much a Watson disc as a Bailey disc, not because Ben necessarily had any part in its creation, but because it so closely fulfills his aesthetic ideals and polemical claims, which revolve around seeing free improvising as part of an avant-garde tradition of performance art and anti-art going back to Dada and Merz. Watson's Frankfurt-School-derived defence of the continued pertinence of avant-garde aesthetics even receives an echo in the title of the track "Bürger Plus" - presumably a nose-thumbing at the author of The Theory of the Avant-Garde, a book which argues that the avant-garde project lost its viability after the early 20th century.) While I'm intrigued by the many detailed critical testimonies that discover in the album an enormous wealth of sound and colour (who knows, maybe it's actually there if you have a patient and sympathetic ear, though I draw the line at the guy who wrote that Sonic Pleasure's brickwork was "uncannily like Sunny Murray" - like hell it is), why this modestly entertaining divertissement needs to be blown up to the proportions of a masterwork remains a mystery to me.—ND

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On Bowindo

Elio Martusciello
bowindo 01
Valerio Tricoli
bowindo 02
Alessandro Bosetti / Antje Vowinckel
bowindo 03
Domenico Sciajno / Gert-Jan Prins
bowindo 04
Having been inundated with requests for Best Of lists for 2003, I eventually got tired of the idea, though if anyone had asked me to name the new label of the year (as opposed to album) I would have nominated Bowindo without a moment's hesitation. Bowindo is, along with Giuseppe Ielasi's Fringes imprint that distributes it, arguably the best thing to come out of Italy since Luigi Nono. Each of the first four releases on the label is superbly recorded, beautifully packaged, and full to the brim with daring and accomplished new music.
Lest you be in any doubt about the label's radical credentials, Elio Martusciello's Aesthetics Of The Machine comes with the following warning: "These recordings are very, very loud. They are dangerous to the ears and for hi-fi systems. Listen with caution. Moderate the volume control." All right! The last album that came with a health warning was Zorn's Kristallnacht, and this one's even more fun. Working with ultrasounds (up to 20,000Hz) and infrasounds (down to 16Hz), all that we perceive, writes Martusciello, is "the result of what has been discarded, the driftage, the limits of technology and our auditory apparatus." Accordingly, the opening "Out of our mind" starts with a god almighty crack (the music, or the loudspeakers already registering disapproval?), and within less than a minute the sub-basses set the entire room shaking. I have a friend with a $30,000 hifi system and electrostatic speakers as tall as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but I'm somehow reluctant to ask him to try this album out, not wishing to be held legally responsible for any structural damage to his property that might result. Remember, as Stockhausen once said, "sounds can kill". Despite the rather scientific nature of the composer's accompanying notes, this is as much music for the body (literally) as it is for the mind; it might not be something one can be said to enjoy, but there is certainly a hell of a lot to feel.
Did I? Did They?, by Bologna-based Valerio Tricoli, whose only released work prior to this was an untitled cassette outing with Ielasi on Freedom From, is a fascinating if enigmatic piece that, like its cover photography, plays with the idea of inside / outside. Or rather, foreground / background - Tricoli explores the idea of distance and depth (real, in the form of sounds occurring far from the mics - a distant police car siren - or illusory - sporadic and intentionally heavy of use of reverb) in a beautifully executed and constantly thought-provoking piece of work. The piece itself lasts 19'09", but the album displays a total duration of 41'08". At 20'21" a ghost track appears, in the form of a recording that has also apparently provided some source material for the preceding piece. It sounds as if Tricoli has hidden a Minidisc recorder inside a cupboard in somebody's apartment: fragments of conversation, the clang of pots and pans, passing traffic noise and various other acoustic ejectamenta of everyday life appear and disappear. Once more, the sounds are recognisably interior (crying children, flushing toilets..) and exterior (passing motorcycles, dogs..) in origin, but their coexistence as musical elements in a work of sound art has blurred the difference. Similarly, the seemingly untreated field recording raises the eternal question, is this life or is it art? That's for you to decide (I'd argue it's both). In its way, Tricoli's work is as aesthetically challenging as Martusciello's, the difference being you probably won't be evicted or have to replace your speakers if you play it loud.
Devotees of lowercase improvisation will no doubt already be familiar with the saxophone work of Alessandro Bosetti (now based in Berlin) through his appearances on notable albums of the genre on Potlatch and Grob. The intriguingly titled Charlemagne, la vue attachée sur son lac de Constance, amoureux de L'âbime [sic] caché, features two of his electroacoustic works, "Sardinia and Japan are Islands" and "Kitchen Piece", as well as a brief work, "NIPPS" by German experimental writer Antje Vowinckel. Bosetti's ear for detail is as acute as one would expect, though his two offerings may surprise listeners accustomed to the micro-inflections of his soprano sax or familiar with the austere electronics on his contribution to last year's Berlin Reeds on Absinth: there's a huge variety of sounds here, from (as you might expect from the title "Kitchen Music") domestic utensils to the spoken word ("Sardinia.." contains, at one point, a text about islands). Silence, though, plays an important structural role, and the nuances of Bosetti's mix are best appreciated in a quiet listening environment, or through headphones (quasi-obligatory these days in this apartment). Vowinckel's work - one might question whether its inclusion is necessary or not - is closer to traditional (whatever that means) models, but well crafted and interesting nonetheless.
For The D&B Album Domenico Sciajno (pictured opposite) and Gert-Jan Prins bill themselves in time-honoured DJ style as "Do shine'o" and "Prinsjan", and indeed there are plenty of real woofer-fucking grooves on the opening "Cascocity", though they're often buried under piles of digital clutter. The outstanding recording, made at Amsterdam's STEIM in 2002, contains plenty of par-for-the-course ultra high frequencies, white noise screes and the like, plus Prins' trademark mangled TV and radio manipulations, but is remarkably listenable (for me at least). The five pieces each have a strong sense of structure and direction, from the serpentine anti-dub of "Diamonds will do" via the thudding motoric pulsing (high and low) of "Tablerock" to the vicious, rumbling roughing-up of snatches of FM radio on "Vinexology". Unlike the Bosetti album discussed above, listening to this one through headphones is a dumb idea; this one's for all the family. Unless Santa gave it you for Christmas, you'll have to get it as a New Year present, if such a thing exists. Great way to start the year, too. Happy New 2004 to everyone at Bowindo: I can't wait for the next instalment. —DW

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Blowing in from Chicago

Spider Compass Good Crime Band
C.I.P. 013 (7")
After several self-produced CDRs, San Francisco's Spider Compass Good Crime Band has finally released their official debut on Blake Edwards' Chicago-based Crippled Intellect Productions label. It's a delightfully potty and all too brief (just fourteen minutes - dare we hope for a full-length SCGCB release some time soon?) chance encounter between 60s exotica and the Sun City Girls, full of cheesy organs and strange electronic doodles, which starts nowhere and makes a fantastic detour all over the place to end nowhere. The two tracks are entitled, respectively, "Calliopian Fallopian Cotter Tube Organ" and "Pharynx Choral Organs Play The Muscle Waltz", and come with note inviting listeners to "please enjoy this document during your next operation or autopsy". To quote Groucho Marx, "come on in and leave all hope behind." —JB

Live 5.14.93
C.I.P. CD010 (3"CD)
Z'ev has been bashing bits of metal together rhythmically since the heady days of Industrial Records, and this offering (in fact a previously unreleased extract of his performance "The Accident" at New York's Performing Garage in 1993, so not exactly new stuff) is just as interesting as what he was doing way back when he appeared in the long out-of-print RE/SEARCH Industrial Culture Handbook. Which is to say, not very, at least on disc - though that depends how loud you're prepared to play it: presumably this is the kind of music that cannot be transferred to CD, especially a puny little three-incher (what a detestable format) - a friend of mine is still waxing lyrical about the legendary Industrial Fetish Night twenty-odd years after the fact, and recalls Z'ev's clangourous vomit-inducing set with particular relish ("I couldn't hear anything for three days!"). As far as I'm concerned, Z'ev's more interesting to read about than listen to (on the subject, there's a good article on the man by Ken Hollings in the December 2003 Wire (238), and that old RE/SEARCH book is still worth seeking out), though if CIP's Blake Edwards is actively hunting down old Industrial legends, we live in hope he might release some new (or even old and long-deleted) work by Monte Cazazza. —JB

Jason Ajemian / Matt Bauder
Locust 38
Bassist Ajemian and tenor saxophonist Bauder set up their mics one night on the back porch and played a half hour's worth of quiet sustained tones (along with various nearby insects). Meanwhile some friends (it says here) recorded the first half of the proceedings on two MiniDiscs, inserting index markers here and there and then playing the resulting tracks on random shuffle, so that what starts out as a duo becomes a quartet. While the players presumably chose their pitches as they went along, rather than following any predetermined score or plan of action, and the shuffle playback of the MDs adds something of an element of surprise, at least in the pitch domain, it's perhaps open to question whether Object 3 should be classified as improvised music as such; sonically, and to a lesser extent procedurally, it has more in common with certain pieces of late Cage. Not always gripping stuff, but certainly pleasantly relaxing. Like sitting out on the back porch. —DW

Kazuhisa Uchihashi / Gene Coleman
False Walls fw04
Gene Coleman's work as a bass clarinettist and as a tireless promoter of genre-defying music (he's championed the music of Luc Ferrari and Mathias Spahlinger) is exemplary, and this set of seven improvised duos with Kazuhisa Uchihashi is superb. Uchihashi has been unfairly overlooked in recent times - other Japanese guitarists (of the onkyo persuasion) have tended to dominate the alt.music press - but he's been quietly perfecting not only his use of electronics but also the daxophone, a wild and wonderful instrument invented by Hans Reichel that sounds like a couple of walruses fucking in a plastic bathtub. (PT regulars will recall Kazu's appearance on the recent Spool trio date with Brett Larner and Joëlle Léandre, No Day Rising.) Together with Coleman's fruity bass clarinet, it sounds magnificent. Silly descriptions aside, there's a great sense of integrity to this music, and fabulous playing and listening throughout. While many guitarists these days seem to spend much of their time deciding which note to play next (or even whether to play at all), Uchihashi gets down to business, and it's a joy. —DW

Tiny Hairs
False Walls fw03
Tiny Hairs, a Chicago-based sextet consisting of Mark Booth and Jonathan Liss on guitars, Peter Rosenbloom on violin, John Devylder on bass, Charles King on electronics and Jim Lutes on drums, could win a prize for silly titles ("Asparagus and aspirin", "From scallop to shapeless"), but someone might like to remind them that the last Gastr del Sol album is already nearly six years old and that the average lifespan of drone / grind / yawn bands like Jackie-O-Motherfucker is about half as long. This material, which dates back to 2001 ("Three-part diagram for making tea" and "Halo of talking horses", originally used in a film by Sandra Binion), seems tailor-made to garner enthusiastic reviews from the likes of David Keenan, and contains all the essential ingredients - mid-to-downtempo binary drumming and dreary two-note ostinati wrapped in a thick blanket of electronic squiggles. Would the last person leaving Chicago please turn out the lights. —JB

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Kenny Wheeler

Psi 03.04
It's a slight surprise to see a Wheeler release away from ECM, and one would like to know a little more about the winding history of this album's making. The individual sessions range in date from 1995 to 2003, though all were recorded at London's Gateway Studios by Steve Lowe, which fortunately minimizes sonic discrepancies between tracks. The mood is also consistent - echt Wheeler in fact: a slow-burning melancholy, the compositions designed to encourage both soloist and listener to ponder reflectively over each chord and its emotive content. "Kind Folks", recorded September 1995, is the only piece to feature the whole band: Ray Warleigh on flute and alto sax, Stan Sulzmann on tenor, John Parricelli on guitar, Chris Laurence on bass, Tony Levin on drums; as throughout the album, Wheeler plays flugelhorn rather than trumpet. The piece's slow-gathering grandeur (it is 12 minutes in duration) is slightly different in feel from the rest of the album, which is more intimate in scale, and it is fittingly placed last on the disc. In January 1996, the same group minus Sulzmann reconvened and set down four more tracks. "Unti" is the album's most forceful and varied piece, the divisions of its elegantly terraced structure marked by gradually more urgent tempos and restless shifts of key centres; while "Nonetheless" is more predictably bittersweet. Two excellent ballads feature just Wheeler and rhythm section: "Cousin Marie" and - rare in his recorded output - a standard, Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing".
Although by this point there was enough material for a respectable (50-minute) CD release, Wheeler instead rerecorded much of the material (three of the five pieces) for ECM in February 1996 with a quartet comprising Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Dave Holland, a session released in 1997 as Angel Song. Whether it was that Wheeler was dissatisfied with the earlier sessions or simply wanted to avoid releasing very similar material at the same time, the Gateway sessions remained in the can. Over the intervening years they were gradually added to. In 1999, "Dream Sequence", a trio performance by Wheeler, Sulzmann and Parricelli, was recorded; in 2003 the album reached its final form with the recording of "Hearken", a Wheeler solo (which actually sounds like two separate pieces, with a distinct break after the 3-minute mark), and "Drum Sequence", a Wheeler/Levin duet. "Dream Sequence" is a particularly fine performance, delicately hinting at both the expressive inflexions of Jewish music and also the fragile balladry of Miles' mid-1960s quintet (Sulzmann even quotes Wayne Shorter's "Witch Hunt" at one point).
One wonders if the original 1995 recording was made with the intention of an ECM release - the session photos included in the booklet are certainly the kind of cheerless black and white shots that are de rigueur for ECM discs. But in the end, it's fallen to Evan Parker's Psi label to release the disc. Wheeler's preferred expressive range is very specialized - if you don't go in for bittersweet poignancy, this isn't the disc for you - but within that range he's a master, and fans of his music will be delighted that this project, so long in the gestation, has finally seen the light. —ND

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Andrea Neumann, Michael Renkel, Olaf Rupp, Serge Baghdassarians
Absinth Records 002
The format's the same as the first Absinth release, Berlin Reeds: four solo performances of about 20 minutes' duration, each apportioned to a 3" CD, the lot being enclosed in a nifty hand-painted album sleeve. Berlin Reeds had compiled sessions recorded some years apart; the pieces on Strings by contrast were all recorded in August 2003. The one real disappointment here is the offering from Serge Baghdassarians, who plays (fiddles with, rather) electric guitar and the current instrument du jour, mixing desk, taking his sweet time to get from motorboat putt-putting to a high whistle; there's then a minute of (blissful) silence, and then, in case you missed it the first time, he recapitulates the whole thing almost exactly. Andrea Neumann's disc also has a lot of mixing-desk twiddling (the source material here is the disembowelled innards of a piano), but the results are feistier and more pointed. The snappily titled "~~" and "``" are heavy on fuzz and crackle, "*" goes in for juddering din, and the disc ends with the accurately titled "End of a Motor Noticed by Five Pick Ups". The best stuff on Berlin Strings though is the acoustic guitar work. Michael Renkel's "Tranz Aronez" starts out as a sequence of hushed, graceful miniatures, separated by bands of silence. Renkel patiently refines his materials until there's little more than two or three intervals left.. then there's just one.. Meanwhile other sounds come to the fore and retire - a held organ tone, some harmonica; at the end there's the eerie sound of what sounds like bowed guitar (or zither? the sleeve notes don't say much). Olaf Rupp's "Metal Peace" is a set of nine brief improvisations each taken at more or less the same demented clip. This is not "abstract" music: Rupp takes familiar guitar idioms and pushes them - louder, faster - until they're buried under their own distortions; he loves to half-obscure quite conventional turns of phrase with dense thickets of string noise. Hardcore lowercase improv addicts will probably hate Rupp's demonic virtuosity and speed, but to these ears this is easily the standout performance on Berlin Strings. —ND

Grace & Delete
Ochre Records OCH045LCD
Contact: ochre@talbot.force9.co.uk
This intriguingly named duo consists of bass clarinettist Chris Cundy and James Dunn on electronics, and they recorded these nine tracks in Cheltenham's Pittville Pump Room in January 2003. Maybe it's the resonant acoustic of that splendid place, or something in the local water (Cheltenham has long been known as an upmarket spa town), but there's a leisurely feel to this music, as Cundy and Dunn take the time necessary to explore their instruments. Dunn's equipment isn't specified, but it's abundantly clear that a keyboard is part of it, as he has a sensitive ear for pitch (rare these days, especially amongst electronicians) and picks up on Cundy's virtuosic lines and angles with considerable dexterity. Dexterity, but no rush; compare this to another celebrated reeds-meets-electronics outing of recent times, John Butcher and Phil Durrant's Requests and Antisongs on Erstwhile (also their Secret Measures on Wobbly Rail) - an unfair comparison, perhaps, as Durrant's work on those two albums involved live treatment of Butcher's saxophone, whereas Dunn leaves Cundy's bass clarinet well alone, but be that as it may - while the Londoners swarm all over the stereo space, the good folks out in Cheltenham are content to let their gently resonant acoustic participate in the proceedings. This doesn't mean things can't get acerbic and difficult - there are numerous thorny passages, particularly on the closing "Belly of Sums" (leave the toughest bit till the end), but the measured approach of the instrumentalists leads listeners into the music rather than driving them away. The result is a convincing and original (if a little long) album, and though Cundy and Dunn might not like the idea of heading to "the smoke", it'd be great to see some of their work out on a premium London-based label soon. Emanem, for instance. Nice work. —DW

Pago Libre
Leo CD LR 377
Pago Libre has been around since 1989, the core being pianist John Wolf Brennan and bassist Daniele Patumi; the horn/violin front-line has settled down after a few personnel changes, with Tscho Theissing as the violinist and Arkady Shilkloper drawing on a wide range of instruments: horn, flugelhorn, alphorn and even something called the alperidoo. Phoenix is drawn from two February 2003 concerts in Salzburg, with the title-track (the sole free improvisation on the disc) the solitary inclusion from an earlier date in Brennan's hometown of Zurich. A lot of different styles and musics go into the mix - jazz, a little free-improv, European classical music, a variety of folk traditions - but no matter what the sources are, the results always turn out as spirited, emphatic and colourful as a folk dance. It's a very entertaining disc, and unlike many live concerts it survives the transfer from the live situation to CD quite convincingly. I'd quibble slightly with the good but very bright recording and mix - the violin and piano can come across overpoweringly on the hottest numbers. But turn the volume knob down a notch, and, voilà!, problem solved. The best pieces here are perhaps those that hide their inner heat inside a superficially elegant exterior, rather than the more fiery tracks like "Folk Song" and "Synopsis". The closing sequence is particularly strong: Shilkloper's charming series of vignettes "Alpine Trail", Brennan's airy "Suonatina", and the curiously unsettling "Tikkettitakkitakk", named after the percussive phrase the musicians cry out during the piece's strange little rhythmic interludes. Brennan has been taken up by Leo in a big way in recent years - this is his twelfth release on the label, by my count - and he continues to repay Leo Feigin's generosity with discs that fulfil the label's slogan admirably: "Music for the Inquiring Mind and the Passionate Heart." Not quite my favourite of Brennan's discs, but still a fine, highly individual document. —ND

Jack Wright & Bob Marsh
Public Eyesore 69
Reedman Jack Wright and cellist, violinist and vocalist Bob Marsh have enjoyed a working relationship going back to when they met in 1986 while Wright was playing in Detroit. Since then they've maintained an ongoing musical relationship during breaks in Jack's almost nonstop touring schedule. Wright has currently just finished a series of November dates with Phil Durrant; past tours have found him in the company of Bhob Rainey, John Butcher, Lê Quan Ninh, Tony Wren and Michel Doneda (to name but a few). Marsh is the leader of the Emergency String Quartet, the Robot Martians and the Illuminated Orchestra, and is a member of Fred Lonberg-Holm's Phenomenal String Quartet. In May 2000 these hyperactive musicians toured together in the Northwest; their stops at the SFalt Festival in Oakland, California and the Polestar Gallery in Seattle, Washington, plus a 2000 studio cut from Chicago, provide the music for this disc. Anybody expecting the fire-breathing Jack Wright would be advised to look elsewhere - whether it's the ornithological titles ("Plight of the Mocking Birds", "Magpie Pie", etc.) of these six improvised pieces or the situation of playing with a cello or violin, this is very understated music, which makes effective use of space. Which is not to impugn the quality; when Wright plays alto with Marsh's cello, it harkens back tonally to Julius Hemphill's duets with Abdul Wadud, albeit playing much less conventionally structured compositions. Likewise his soprano playing recalls, alternately, Steve Lacy or Larry Ochs. Such comparisons, however, provide merely elementary points of reference; both players have their own unique styles and highly original approaches to improvisation that reflect fully formed, if inadequately appreciated, musical personae. The unusual timbre of Marsh's processed vocals is somewhat disarming at first, but attentive listening reveals how they enhance the experience by expanding the aural palette, alternately mimicking the cello and providing counterpoint to it. Marsh and Wright's longstanding relationship reveals itself in the coherent ways that they respond to the series of ideas that are thrown out and subsequently developed. Birds In The Hand is strongly recommended to aficionados of duet music who are looking for unique approaches and fresh voices. —SG

Kyle Bruckmann
Red Toucan RT 9323
"Rather Dour" is the title of the first of seven pieces featuring a quintet led by oboist Bruckmann and featuring trombonist Jeb Bishop, violist Jen Clare Paulson, bassist Kurt Johnson and percussionist Tim Daisy, and dour is an appropriate epithet: apart from the melancholy timbres of Bruckmann's double reeds, the plaintive sonorities of the viola (Mat Maneri inevitably springs to mind) and Bishop's lugubrious trombone, the theme itself sounds as if it could have been penned by Arvo Pärt. "Elegy for a Boiled Frog" also reveals a fondness for sustained tones, but Tim Daisy's drums provide the necessary forward motion throughout this track and the album as a whole. Bruckmann, who recently moved away from Chicago to San Francisco, is as at home fronting his wild rock outfit Lozenge as he is exploring the furthest reaches of extended technique (notably in his duo with Ernst Karel), but throughout Wrack he plays it straight, with full tone and vibrato on oboe and English horn worthy of Heinz Holliger. As a result, there's a distinct sense of nostalgia for the old Third Stream fusion of contemporary classical and jazz idioms, from the fugal workout of "Extenuating Circumstances" to the final arrangement of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman", which one imagines Gunther Schuller might have been proud of. —DW

Itaru Oki
Ohraï 1009
Itaru Oki's trumpet playing led him to leave Osaka, Japan for the more challenging jazz setting of Tokyo in 1964, before upping the ante ten years later by moving to Paris, where he resides today. He has made sporadic appearances with European improvisers, and has appeared on several of Alan Silva's recordings. This quartet of free jazz veterans (Oki on trumpet and wood flutes, Silva on bass and piano, Michel Pilz on bass clarinet, and Sunny Murray on drums) was recorded in Abdelhaï Bennani's basement in Paris on May 12, 2001 - hence the cavernous sound quality. Everybody is in reasonably good form and there is strong playing by all concerned, with the possible exception of Silva, whose bass (poorly miked or badly mixed?) is at times barely audible. The session consists of Oki compositions, which are interesting enough from a melodic standpoint but have a certain bothersome meandering quality in performance. The first three cuts on the disc go nowhere at all despite interesting heads; only midway through the fourth song, "Sakura", does Pilz's bass clarinet finally catch fire, and along with Murray (and Silva, who I assume is somewhere in there) the song is propelled forward forcefully. This spontaneous combustion continues onto the next song, "Un peu de gout d'aïl", an early Ornettish type tune similar in tempo and sound to "Ramblin", on which everybody is on the same page. This, alas, is the high point; the following "Soon" starts promisingly but then falls apart into aimlessness. The last two songs are mere fragments of duets that both fade in and out rather quickly, the first featuring Pilz and Murray, the second Silva (on piano, audible at last) and Oki. —SG

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Various Artists
Cold Blue CB0014 (3CD)
This 3CD reissue regroups the seven 10" LPs released by California's Cold Blue label in the early 1980s - one each from composers Peter Garland, Michael Jon Fink, Barney Childs, Read Miller, Chas Smith, Rick Cox and Daniel Lentz. Those familiar with recent Cold Blue releases won't be all that surprised by the music on offer, as it is (and always has been) in a curious way out of time: neither postmodern (not a hint of irony) nor retro (maladroit nostalgia), it's remained seemingly oblivious of notable developments in Western Art Music since World War II, as if the fanatical serialism of Darmstadt and the experimentalism of the New York School both died of dehydration en route across the desert like some unfortunate early wagon train. On Disc One, Garland's "Matachin Dances" are deceptively simple movements for two violins and Mexican gourd rattles that are clearly twentieth century but reveal little discernible influence of any Western predecessor (with the possible of exception of late 1940s Cage), while Michael Jon Fink's piano music, though frequently - and misleadingly - compared to Feldman, is disarmingly naïve (not in the pejorative sense of the word) and unashamedly diatonic. Disc Two leans away from music somewhat towards poetry: Barney Childs, who died three years ago aged 74, did after all study English Lit at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and Read Miller was last heard of ensconced in the backwoods of Virginia, writing. Childs' "Clay Music" is scored for handmade clay ocarinas, and Miller's "Mile Zero Hotel" and "The Blueprint of a Promise" are spoken voice works. On Disc Three, Chas Smith's pedal steel and 12 string dobro are as evocative and quintessentially American as a crackling neon light outside a desert motel at sunset, and the prepared slide guitar of Rick Cox's "These things stop breathing" atmospheric, eerie even.
Though the reissue of each of these mini-albums is welcome, it's particularly so in the case of Daniel Lentz's After Images; back in the 1980s Lentz was being hailed as the Next Great Minimalist (and never quite lived up to the title - instead we ended up with John "Opera" Adams), and rediscovering his exquisite textual deconstructions is a joy. Here was a peculiarly Californian minimalism, refreshingly free from the systemic dogma of Reich and the bombast of post-Satyagraha Glass, beautifully scored and modest in scope, as fresh and clear as the air of the high Sierra. Indeed, if this and much of the other music on these discs has stepped out of time, it has nonetheless retained a distinct sense of place, and in these times of ever-increasing uniformity of language and aesthetic in new music (who today can identify a piece as being distinctly French, English or Italian?), that's not something to be derided. There may be some mildly soporific stuff here, but it's all beautifully performed and recorded, and genuinely touching in its simplicity. And that's not something you find very often anymore in contemporary composition.—DW

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Crouton Crou021

Don't let the unpronounceable name of the group put you off: Dust Pincher Appliances is the work of Matt Waldron, whose remix (that's definitely not the word, but never mind) of Nurse With Wound's first album last year attracted a fair bit of attention. One can only hope this does too, as it's by far the most original electronic work I've come across in a long time. Even if you're not familiar with the Nurse connection, the ghoulish cover art should be a clue (Waldron also signed the cover art of the NWW Automating albums), along with track titles like "a body rendered disjecta membra through the application of dust pincher appliances" and the added information that Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson originally released the above-mentioned track in Iceland on a 10" in 1998 - we're orbiting that strange planet peopled by Nurse's Steve Stapleton, Current 93's David Tibet and Coil (with whom Waldron has also worked). Waldron's music inscribes itself solidly in the tradition of what Stapleton described as "surrealist": familiar sound sources and (relatively) normal musical material recontextualised into something rich and strange. Unlike much contemporary electronica, whose fondness for stasis and/or a limited palette of trusted software FX (belying its origins in AMM-style improvisation and the far reaches of techno), Waldron likes the bold gesture, the broad brushstroke. Using samples culled from diverse sources - post-war contemporary classical, music boxes, field recordings - and presenting them in surprising contexts - sounds of a playground and a disembodied Spanish guitar float over strangely disturbing thuds and crunches in "a distended particular" - with an occasional healthy dose of reverb and panning, he creates the kind of sonic tableaux that follow their own highly original narrative logic. Aficionados of Nurse With Wound and anyone else interested in the cutting edge of electronic music owe it to themselves to check this album out. Another fabulous release from Jon Mueller's Crouton label. —DW

Richard Chartier
Crouton crou024
Archival1991 is Richard Chartier's reworking (in 2003) of two early synthesizer compositions originally recorded when he was just 20. It's a seamless slow-motion trawl through a cavernous space, reminiscent at times of Thomas Köner's Arctic soundscapes Nuuk and Permafrost (Chartier's original compositions were roughly contemporary with the latter), though somewhat more intense - one senses an element of pulse somewhere in there, though it's buried under layers of rich and reverberant sound. Those accustomed to the pristine clarity of Chartier's recent work may be surprised at the lush texture, though the aesthetic is just as uncompromising. Put this one on if your air conditioning breaks down during a heat wave - it'll cool you down. —JB

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Copyright 2003 by Paris Transatlantic