JANUARY News 2005 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Nate Dorward, Jean Michel Van Schouwburg, Wayne Spencer, Dan Warburton:

Editorial: Happy New Ear
In Print: Robin Holloway: On Music
On Clean Feed:
Lisbon Improvisation Players /
Ivo Perelman / Ze Eduardo Unit

In search of lowercase:
Sealed Knot / Mattin & Taku Unami / Friedl, Günter & Vorfeld / Dörner & Hayward
On Sirr:
..to Maurice Blanchot / John Hudak & Stephan Mathieu
In Print:
Audio Culture
On Emanem: Milo Fine / Masashi Harada / Fred Lonberg-Holm
John Abercrombie / SURD / Per Henrik Wallin /
Faruq Z. Bey / Marco Eneidi / Cecil Taylor / Joost Buis / Rudresh Mahanthappa

Stackenäs, Sandell, Parker, Guy, Lytton / Schlippenbach Trio / Kainkwatett / Olive, Nikisawa / Baghdassarians, Baltschun, Bosetti, Doneda / Stéphane Rives
Alvin Curran / Lukas Ligeti / Joël-François Durand
United States of Belt / Goh Lee Kwang / Pita / Julien Ottavi / Absolut Null Punkt / Max Eastley & David Toop
Last month

Happy New Ear

Quite against my more sensible instincts this issue of Paris Transatlantic has again mushroomed into something enormous, with reviews of two major books on new music and no fewer than 37 discs. There's a Portuguese flavour to the issue once more, with features on Clean Feed and Sirr – along with Creative Sources and Cronica proof that it's really happening down there – and, you'll be relieved to see (or maybe you're not, but I am) NO silly Best Ofs lists. As if a whole year's music could be reduced to a top ten.. I know I know, I'm not immune to bestofitisis myself, having produced the self-indulgent Top 40 a while back, but as I mention in the review below of Alvin Curran's magnificent Maritime Rites, sometimes the best discs of the year appear in November and December – too late for the publication deadlines of mags like The Wire, for example. Anyway, thanks to the many who joined the team of PT writers during 2004 – Clifford Allen, Stephen Griffith, Richard Hutchinson, TJ Norris, Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg, Wayne Spencer and Kris Westin – and here's to a happy, healthy and music-filled 2005 for all. Bonne année, bonne lecture.—DW

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Robin Holloway
Robin Holloway
Claridge Press 438pp £30 / $US45
"The composer '..while he was completing his thesis on Debussy and Wagner (to be published by Eulenberg next year), and latterly on a special fellowship to enable him to compose. From October he will be lecturing on music history. After student years at King's, he spent a period at Oxford, and, since leaving King's College School, Wimbledon, he has had only one year outside academic institutions: a miserable period writing correspondence college courses in London…' From a newspaper article, 1974."
Does that ring a bell? Try Derek Bailey's Improvisation: its nature and practice in music, page 76. (If you have the first edition.) The composer in question, not named in Bailey's book, is Robin Holloway, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College and Professor in the Music Faculty of Cambridge University, and, thirty years on from the newspaper article cited above, he's still there. This collection of Holloway's writings on music was published last year to coincide with his 60th birthday, but has only just made its way across the Channel to me here in Paris, the reason being that Holloway is, shall we say, not quite up to speed when it comes to email, preferring instead to pen long and exquisitely written letters on the backs of discarded A3 photocopies of his own scores. Derek Bailey, one imagines, chose Holloway as a representative example of a world he must have considered light years away from his own; it's hard to imagine anything more different from the fish'n'chips, flat caps, pubs and clubs of working class Sheffield than the cloistered world of a Cambridge don (Nicholas Williams once memorably but rather unflatteringly described Holloway as a "hothouse plant"..). And yet I like to think that Bailey would find much to agree with in this collection of articles spanning the years 1963 – 2003. Not only that, but Holloway, who for my money has two of the most acute ears on the planet, would find much to marvel at in Bailey's guitar playing, which I'm sure he hardly knows.

Of the 71 essays collected in the book, 36 originally appeared in The Spectator, 13 in Tempo magazine, 6 in the Times Literary Supplement, and the rest in occasional publications, including "Beware The Pitfalls Of Sincerity" (bang on target for its time: it was published by The Independent on October 14th 1989) and the seminal "Towards a critique – the music of Alexander Goehr" in the collection of essays on Goehr edited by Bayan Northcott in 1980 (of which more later). Their appearance in print is long overdue, for Holloway's writing on music is perceptive and sharp, and as well crafted and accessible as his own music. The following description of the slow movement of Haydn's String Quartet Op.77 No.2 is quintessential Holloway: "The melody (essentially 'three blind mice' with twiddles) is a sort of faux-naïf Lego, whose every link can be used to make a different thing." Quite apart from being probably the only English sentence ever written to contain the words "twiddles", "faux-naïf" and "Lego", it instantly and effortlessly describes the music in a manner that anyone – including somebody who has never heard the work in question – can understand, without talking down to the reader. Holloway's prose style has always been a source of joy to me, and I readily acknowledge its influence. Who else could describe Hindemith as "athletic All Bran", Brahms' "Four Serious Songs" as "oleaginous yet beery" (spot on!), Stockhausen's "Inori" as "a kind of Heath Robinson flying bungalow, bristling with quaint quasi-scientific appendages, celestial tea-strainers and home-made aerials to pick up signals from Astral Beings" and encapsulate the essence of Aaron Copland in a single sentence: "Within the hard flat brightness unmistakable for any other music – brazen, clangourous, metallic, glassy, strident, gaunt – lies the equally unmistakable Copland tenderness, oddly wistful (a favourite word), shy, stammering, vulnerable."

Adjectives come thick and fast, but Holloway's writing is no showcase of verbal dexterity for its own sake. His solid grounding in Scrutiny and the distant yet discernible presence of Leavis and Tovey ensures there's plenty of meat underneath the rich, creamy sauce. "Music is about notes, whether the upshot is Tristan's delirium, Tchaikovsky's floods of passion, cardiac convulsions in Mahler and Berg, or any sonata, trio, quartet, symphony by Haydn [..] If 'words, not ideas, make a poem' how much more true for the relatively unconnotational art of music. Not passions, neuroses, concepts, pictures or any other extraneous intentions make a piece of music, but pitches, rhythms, durations, timbres, in all their infinite potential for organised combination." Those with more than a smattering of basic musical training will find much to marvel at in the two extended pieces on Wagner, "Motif, memory and meaning in Twilight of the Gods" and "Experiencing music and imagery in Parsifal", the impressive analysis of Mahler 10 and the tour de force that is "The orchestration of Elektra: a critical interpretation" (worth buying a full score for). Incidentally, the Debussy / Wagner thesis mentioned in the Bailey quote was indeed published by Eulenberg and still makes for an impressive read.

Central to Holloway's thought is the importance of simply being able to hear what's going on in a piece of music, an idea that applies just as well to improvised and electronic musics as it does to classics of occidental art music: "The passage 'speaks' because the ear is excited or pleased. The combination might have been brought about by a note-row, a magic square, a throw of the dice, or the cat running up the keyboard. But its cause is not its reason; the intelligibility lies in the sound itself, and choices which might have been (metaphorically) linguistic for their creator do not have any direct bearing except in as much as the sureness of his choice compels the ear's recognition that they are right." This extract comes from the above-mentioned Goehr critique, perhaps the closest Holloway has ever come to a mission statement, a uniquely personal appraisal of the music of his former teacher and subsequent boss in the Cambridge Music Faculty. "Goehr's predilection is for the method that begins in the assumption of an alleged deep structure in a work, truer than its obviously apprehensible stylistic surface and its immediate deployment of its affects. Therefore for him preoccupation with style, as with emotional content, trivialises: style is merely decorative, affective content is belles-lettres. But suppose that such obvious surface features were what the composer had intended the listener to take in? In that sense they would be the truest content, to grasp which would make analysis superfluous; mere curiosity to see how the wheels go round. Analysis is how we hear anyway; the composer has taken pains to make things clear for us. There are no deep secrets, for everything significant tells sooner or later."
Among other memorable quotations from the article, we find the following: "Music written to demonstrate 'that certain notes follow and that others don't' has in theory got sound and sense out of alignment." And "most post-serial composition is arbitrary and egoistic; its base is intellectual caprice frozen into dogma." In the old Adorno debate, Stravinsky or Schoenberg, choose your side, Holloway's predilection for Stravinsky is clear (it's a shame the book doesn't include an analytical discussion of a Stravinsky work along the lines of the Strauss piece mentioned above), and he saves some of his harshest judgements for the older composer. In a 1989 Spectator piece, provocatively entitled "The Great Mutilator" (which "elicited more vociferous reaction than anything in the fifteen years subsequent"), he goes for the throat: "Schoenberg's twelve-note music is still composed upon tonal premises, but the notes no longer make sense except in mere rationality of construction, and their actual sound is excruciating, with constant overloading and tension without resolution, and a new coarseness in the instrumentation that had once been so rich and delicate. [..] Schoenberg's 'reluctant revolution' gets this the wrong way round: grammar before speech, a body with skeleton and organs on the outside." And, in a final coup-de-poing: "Schoenberg invoked the great tradition of German composers from Bach to Brahms in an unsuccessful attempt to mend what he had blown up. But in the explosion he had unfortunately lost his ears. And the result was the mutilation of a whole epoch of music."
Vociferous reaction it might have provoked, but history will prove – maybe already has proved – Holloway right. In an earlier (1977) review of Malcolm MacDonald's book on Schoenberg, he confronts the problem with his customary common sense: "Schoenberg apologists can persuade themselves of anything. 'For my part, I shall continue to whistle Schoenberg's tunes whenever they come into my head.' Brave words; but listen to people as they whistle! All the time their whistling is supported by an innate understanding, usually quite unconscious, of the harmony that gives the tune its meaning, whether be a snatch of Beethoven, Jerusalem, or something off the hit-parade. Why don't the committed 'plain-man' Schoenbergians start from the truth that his harmony is no longer in gear with the melody it underlies, that the melody is therefore out of focus, that something absolutely simple and absolutely fundamental has gone wrong, and that from this central fault every aspect of his later music is riven with chaos and distress?"

Analysis is how we hear; how simple yet how true. Holloway has little time for earnest Schenkerians sweating over Bruckner. This on Ed Laufer's "Aspects of Prolongation in the Ninth Symphony": "Its putative usefulness – to underline the supreme competence and inspiration with which in this work Bruckner composes – would be pre-empted anyway by listening with absorption to an adequate performance." And if the criticism of Schoenberg above might lead readers to think Holloway is resolutely anti-serial, they would be wrong. Indeed, he's one of the few composers and writers who has recognised the importance of serialism and discussed its application to the music of composers few people would associate with it. Take this telling passage from an appreciation written to commemorate the centenary of Aaron Copland: "The Piano Variations (1930) crucially discover that the constructivistic rigours eventually christened and codified as 'serialism' needn't be a slave to strict ordering of the notes. Rather, the notes make a pool of pitch-resources, a highly characterised clench of harmony fused into itself or separated out into intervals forming a repertory of shapes, a sonorous image-cluster with the material and its total potential locked into a nugget of heavy-density plutonium. Which above all needn't or even shouldn't consist of all twelve notes. The obsession with the twelve shows a misplaced exhaustiveness hanging-over from the nice artificial compromise of equal temperament, its authoritative canonisation by Bach, and the gigantic consequences for Western music ever since."

Though the division of this book into three sections – "The Austro-German Mainstream", "The Others" and (the all too brief) "Think Pieces" – might suggest the frequently invoked idea of the continuity of tradition (Haydn begat Mozart begat Beethoven begat Brahms begat Schoenberg etc.), it does reveal Holloway's special fondness for composers who slipped off the radar, those who refused to "make it new", or who simply weren't interested in pursuing the modernist agenda. Hence the book provides clear and overdue appraisals of Humperdinck, Rott, Diepenbrock, Schoeck and Schmidt, as well as better-known names such as Elgar, Fauré and Poulenc. Take this extract from his piece on Franz Schmidt, "Unobtrusive Conservative": "Revolutionary achievement, if good, speaks for itself (though not always at once). It is much harder to estimate music of calibre that alters nothing. The rhetoric of our times, still hung up on romantic uniqueness and gearing to 'making it new', tends to favour only the sharply distinct artistic profile [..] Boulez, the voice of the undying avant-garde, proclaims in a recent interview that history will forget those composers who do not follow its dictates. But who wants to be remembered by history!"
In his 1989 Spectator piece "Beware The Pitfalls Of Sincerity", Holloway nails the current fad for the likes of Pärt, Tavener and Gorecki: "How to ensure a sympathetic reaction for a new piece of music? Ideally the subject should combine Ecology (with special reference to tropical rain-forests) with Protest (preferably shrill and futile). It should climax with an ecumenical prayer (in every known language simultaneously) for intergalactic peace. The musical material should include at least three of the following: Jewish cantillation, Catholic plainsong, Tibetan chanting, Aboriginal drumming, whalesong. The idiom should be middle-of-the-road, artfully disguised with mod cons (clusters, glissandos, electronics); there should be a strong pop-music element, plenty of repetition à la Philip Glass. When inspiration fails, fill the gaps with ritual gong strokes, prolonged and amplified to the threshold of pain. But such cynicism will not do; this is a serious matter. [..] The wide current appeal of such music seems to touch a nerve of communal masochism. Audiences yearn to groan under the yoke of suffering they may never have experienced." And later: "I believe that music-lovers are deluded when they claim to find artistic pleasure in any but a fraction of this music [..] The content they locate is a projection of what they know of its circumstances – by which only a heart of stone would not be moved. Take away this knowledge and the appeal would vanish, for the music is rarely able to stand on its own merits."
Elsewhere, Shostakovich comes in for some rough treatment: "Neutral or indeed repellent: battleship-grey in melody and harmony, factory-functional in structure; in content all rhetoric and coercion, exercises or instructions in communal lament and celebration, rendered by portentous slow music and mirthless fast music, nearly identical from work to work, coarsely if effectively scored, executed with horrifying fluency and competence." And, on the string quartets: "Astonishing that this cycle is now as a matter of routine compared with Beethoven's; like comparing a housing estate to the Acropolis." But others fare much worse, notably Schnittke ("resource becomes recourse, returns sharply diminish; techniques that even at best and most necessary were never innately musical lose their surprise and turn routine; disgust supervenes, then boredom, finally indifference") and Henze ("the same old welter of indiscriminate notes in an orgy of clapped-out expressionist gesturing").

Holloway acknowledges the importance of formative influences – Goehr, Britten, Hans Keller – while successfully distancing himself from them. One of the most affectionate portraits is of the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey: "What would this sane, forthright, grammar-wielding yet poetic mind make of Britten, Messiaen, Nancarrow, Ligeti? He'd surely be able to sort out the tangle of ideology, biography, fire slag and ash in Shostakovich? Tovey on Adams, Stockhausen, Birtwistle? We need it." In similar vein, one might rue the absence in Holloway's book of anything substantial on Sibelius, Delius, Carter, Feldman, Ligeti, Boulez, Reich, Adams and Torke. Why six essays on Britten (including the well-written but snooty and pompous piece penned when Holloway was 20) and nothing on Bartók, whose Fourth Quartet Holloway once memorably described in a lecture as "mindless hideousness". That particular remark, made back in 1982, actually prompted this writer and a couple of his aggressively avant-garde pals to stage a Fred Kite-style "mass" walkout of Holloway's lecture. When I later got to know Robin Holloway better – as a Caius student myself, he was my BA thesis adviser – I lent him my copies of Mingus Presents Mingus and Ascension – "they kept me awake all night!" he beamed.
For Holloway was, and always has been, curious to hear other music, while being the first to admit he would never be able to welcome it unreservedly into his life. (Another fond memory is of the time I stopped off at his London home with a copy of The Kings Of Pressure's Give Me The Mike, which I'd been looking for ever since I heard it and its Joe Quarterman sample on a John Peel show. Despite my assurances that he wouldn't like it, Holloway insisted on blasting the Cezanne still life of his kitchen with Old School Rap, sitting with head in hands, muttering "B-b-but what are they saying?") Spending all of one's adult life within the confines of a Cambridge college, even if you can dine regularly with the likes of Stephen Hawking and Jeremy Prynne (both Fellows at Caius), isn't my idea of living – nor, I would imagine, is it Derek Bailey's – but I am slightly envious of the hothouse environment that has provided Holloway with time to listen and fully comprehend the scope and sweep of Western music, from the complete Bach cantatas to all 37 CDs of Schubert songs, from Chabrier to Shapey, Purcell to Pärt. What would this sane, forthright, grammar-wielding yet poetic mind make of Derek Bailey's Aida, Bernhard Günter's un peu de neige salie, Stephan Mathieu's Heroin? Robin Holloway on Merzbow, Sugimoto, Keith Rowe? We need it.—DW

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On Clean Feed
Lisbon Improvisation Players
Clean Feed 025
Ivo Perelman
Clean Feed 024
Ze Eduardo Unit
Clean Feed 028
Launched in 2001 by brothers Pedro and Carlos Costa in Lisbon, Portugal, the Clean Feed label has quickly become one of the most important and thriving labels in modern jazz. With approximately 40 releases in just under four years, it's also a truly international imprint, with a roster including artists from the US (Ken Vandermark, Steve Swell..) and England (Paul Dunmall) as well as the home country (Lisbon Improvisation Players, Carlos Zingaro, Mario Delgado..). It would be easy to release only better-known musicians, but Clean Feed has always seen fit to team up noted international improvisers with the gifted local players, right from its very first release, The Implicate Order, on which Steve Swell, Ken Filiano and Lou Grassi were joined by Rodrigo Amado and Paolo Curado of the Lisbon Improvisation Players. LIP's strong second date is among this latest slew of releases along with bassist Zé Eduardo’s tenor-driven power trio and another installment in the lengthy discography of Brazilian expatriate saxophonist Ivo Perelman.

Of several notable Portuguese ensembles specializing in open-form improvisation, the Lisbon Improvisation Players, founded and directed by saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, are probably the most visible. Whereas their first album was the work of a sextet of Portuguese musicians, this quartet incarnation of LIP features two Americans, sopranino/tenor saxophonist Steve Adams and bassist Ken Filiano. (Filiano, a classically trained bassist often associated with the West Coast circle around reedman Vinny Golia, has appeared on several Clean Feeds, notably the remarkable The Space Between with violinist Carlos Zingaro.) LIP do not particularly conform to any mode of free improvisation; one can hear traces of the AACM, post-Coltrane energy music, and the various European strains of non-idiomatic improvisation, but as sinewy baritone and sopranino lines blend together in a cascade of sound, abruptly falling away to solo statements by drummer Acácio Salero and bassist Filiano, such references are of little importance. Improvisations are frequently built on contrasts, most notably those between Amado’s husky baritone and Adams’s lithe, poised sopranino; staccato bursts from reeds and percussion have a strange way of slowly blurring into a constant hum of activity, anchored by Filiano’s impenetrable sense of drive. In tandem with the somewhat fractured approach taken by Salero, rhythm becomes a tenuous thing, hinging on the creation and subversion of a feeling of movement, with Filiano’s sonorous arco lines blending with reeds to create a sense of sonic flow that does not presage rhythm or movement, but rather activity. Motion.

Similarly open in concept, but of a decidedly different ilk, is Black on White, the new offering from Brazil-born tenor player Ivo Perelman, a firebrand who has made his home in Brooklyn since the early 90s. Unlike LIP's unique, process-oriented work, Perelman’s music is firmly rooted in multiphonics-drenched late 60s tenor playing, equal parts Coltrane, Ayler, Sanders and Barbieri. He's a powerful and creative player within that sphere of influence, but a consummate improviser he is not – one gets the feeling from listening to his solos that his study has been limited to ESP and Impulse avant-garde sessions (on “Naked Seeds,” he inserts a quote from one of Barbieri’s “Togetherness” solos, but rather than leaving it as a sly reference, he milks it dry). Get beyond the unoriginality of Perelman’s playing though and the pieces can be a gas – “Cores” is particularly storming, with Perelman's blinding Ayleresque squeaks and blasts at full tempo as bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall create a dense kinetic push underneath.

In stark contrast to Perelman's fiery salvos, bassist Zé Eduardo’s trio, featuring tenorman Jesús Santandreu and drummer Bruno Pedroso (somewhat ubiquitous on the Lisbon scene), takes as its jumping-off point the words of Portuguese poet and composer José Alonso. The Eduardo Unit creates a rhythmically supple, intuitive and harmonically liberated music derived cadentially from Alonso’s lyrics, approaching folk music while simultaneously being complex and dissonant enough to subvert such comparison. The trio balances precariously between guttural skronk and free rhythm, and the loosely swinging, off-kilter melodies of the parent tunes – check out “Grândola Vila Morena”. “Canto Moço” is an oddly funky march, its melody built on an incantatory phrase wrung out completely with oddly bent, almost wah-wah like saxophone smears. Santandreu is without doubt a consummate player on his instrument; tackling free passages with a command of the instrument’s registers and finding the "wrong" sounds with facility. While he can give the post-Ayler set a run for their money, he is, on “O Que Faz Falta,” just as able to channel a “Strode Rode” Sonny Rollins, crafting one of the most engaging bop tenor solos I’ve heard in a long time. Many musicians often get the rhythmically off-kilter, pastiche-like nature of Rollins’ music, but few get the wry humor too – and Santandreu does in spades.
The spontaneous, open creations of the Lisbon Improvisation Players, Eduardo's bringing together of Portuguese protest songs and poems with free bop and the fire music tradition as represented by Perelman, all feed into today's improvised music. Cloying though it may sound, what is on offer on these three discs is nothing less than an affirmation of the universality of improvisation as an art form.—CA

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In search of lowercase
The Sealed Knot
Confront Collectors Series CCS 1

Mattin / Taku Unami

Friedl / Günter / Vorfeld
trente oiseaux TOC 042

Axel Dörner / Robin Hayward
absinthRecords 005
"Lowercase", "reductionist", "onkyo", "micro-improv", "minimal improv".. by the time we manage to reach a consensus on what to call the recent trend in improvised music towards a greater use of silence, generally lower dynamics and avoidance (deliberate or otherwise) of "traditional" / "conversational" models, it'll probably be too late. Indeed, London-based cellist / bassist / electronician / percussionist Mark Wastell (who by the way has always preferred the term "reductionist" to "lowercase", which would seem to have set him on a collision course with Bhob Rainey who expressed serious reservations about the R word in Signal To Noise magazine a while back) argues nowadays that the genre / movement, call it what you will, is over and done with. As adjectives go, though, "reductionist" is certainly effective to describe the four tracks that make up Unwanted Object, Wastell's third outing on disc with the Sealed Knot trio with harpist Rhodri Davies and percussionist Burkhard Beins. It's as if each musician has decided in advance to concentrate on a small predetermined number of sonorities: Wastell, on double bass (his latest instrumental discovery, already featured on the solo "For John Entwistle" on Absinth), prefers simple low register pizzicati and detached staccato bowed work – no danger then of him ending up sounding like Werner Dafeldecker, as sustained bowed tones appear relatively briefly later in the album; Beins restricts himself to bowed and scraped drum heads and cymbals, with a special fondness for crotales (but as Wastell is well known for using Nepalese bowls I sometimes wonder if it's not him, even though he's credited as playing only the bass), and Davies favours bell-like multiphonics from his prepared harp. The press release sums it up quite nicely when it jokingly describes the music as "Feldman encounters a gamelan ensemble at a house party hosted by The Necks", though that makes things sound more lightweight than they actually are. Feldman's influence seems undeniable – the use of regular and not so regular repeating cells of material marks a distinct departure from earlier "oops you missed it" lowercase practice – and Wastell and Davies' apparent fondness for duple and quadruple rhythmic structures is just as surprising. There's no danger of Beins ever letting the music swing, but at times the pulse element is sufficiently upfront to have you tap your foot along, albeit briefly. This in conjunction with the fact that any low bass notes repeated often enough are inevitably perceived by the ear as the root of a chord makes the music sound remarkably normal (you could even argue that whole stretches of the final track could be heard as a kind of D eleventh chord with added high G# on the crotales). The album title refers to the fact that the recording was originally intended for release as part of the American label Locust Music's Object series, but was turned down by the label for unspecified reasons. I'd be curious to find out what those were, since the Sealed Knot work is musically as distinctive if not more so than several of the outings released in the Object series so far. Perhaps they thought it didn't push the envelope far enough (but offhand I can think of two other Objects of which the same could be said). However, despite the fact that its vocabulary is reasonably user-friendly, the overall impression Unwanted Object gives is one of funereal dirge. "Requiem for Reductionism", perhaps.

One of the consequences of listening to lowercase's use of silence is that the ear tunes in to what is normally filtered out as "background"; after a quarter of a century of so-called ambient music, it's now time for ambient noise. Examples include the hum, murmur and rustle of the audience attending Radu Malfatti and Taku Sugimoto's concert at Vienna Rhiz (on the IMJ Futatsu double album), the gallery chitchat from which Mike Bullock's bass emerges on Initial (Chlöe) and the distant train sounds that drift dreamlike through Training Thoughts, released on Mattin's w.m.o/r label last year and featuring him and Yasuo Totsuka on laptops and Sugimoto once more on guitar. That concert was recorded by another local lowercase laptopper, Taku Unami, who also collaborates with Mattin on Shiryo No Computer, jointly released on w.m.o/r and Unami's Hibari imprint. There's enough room in their music for passing traffic and local wildlife (canine), but in keeping with Mattin's oft-quoted enthusiasm for Whitehouse as well as Malfatti, there are a few nasty surprises too. Unlike much of the inputless mixing board feedback of Toshi Nakamura, which consists of gradual permutation of looped material (the conceptual parentage of Steve Reich is clearly audible), the charm of Mattin's computer feedback is its sheer unpredictability, its tendency to explode into noise without warning. This makes listening to his music – as opposed to Unami's, which is almost without exception extremely quiet and sparse – quite a tense experience. Sure, listening to Radu and Taku is tense too, but the concentration is geared towards the how and when as opposed to the what: one knows chances of Sugimoto playing more than one or two notes are pretty slim, and the probability of Malfatti producing an old school FMP-style splatter is, well, ZERO. The tension is a "traditionally musical" one of how musical ideas – often little more than mere isolated pitches – are extended by memory and articulated by silence over a long span of time. The contrast between Futatsu and Whitenoise, Malfatti's album with Mattin, could not be greater. Compared to that album, Shiryo No Computer is something of a disappointment, because it manages to lose both kinds of tension: Unami isn't interested in pitch as a parameter to explore, so the Sugimoto / Malfatti line of enquiry (which ultimately leads back to Cage and Feldman) takes us nowhere. Nor is he given to the bursts of extremism that characterise Mattin's work and link it to sonic extremists such as Junko (check out Pinknoise). Unami's fondness for upturning small loudspeakers and putting small objects in to vibrate – a pocket version of Xavier Charles' surfaces vibrantes – is enthralling when it gets going, but one wishes Tetuzi Akiyama could have sat in and thickened the plot with a little pitch interest. As it is, Shiryo No Computer overstays its welcome by about 20 minutes.

It's worth remembering that one of the musicians whose use of silence and extremely low dynamics proved enormously influential in the formation of a lowercase aesthetic about six or seven years ago was the German composer bernhard günter (lowercase letters his idea, not mine). Günter's debut album un peu de neige salie caused quite a stir – albeit a very quiet one – when it was first released on Selektion, though nowadays, after more than a hundred broadly similar outings by the likes of Francisco López, Marc Behrens and Steve Roden (many of them on günter's trente oiseaux label) it sounds almost classical. Intervening years have also revealed the composer's fondness for Morton Feldman, and an acute ear for pitch, and recently he's returned to improvisation – he started out as a percussionist and later studied jazz guitar – both in the +minus trio with Mark Wastell and Graham Halliwell and with this Berlin-based line-up featuring pianist Reinhold Friedl and percussionist Michael Vorfeld. Vorfeld is also credited as playing "stringed instruments", as is günter, in the form of his self-designed cellotar, which, logically enough, is a cross between a cello and a guitar. Message Urgent was recorded at Berlin's PODEWIL in November 2003 (just a couple of months after günter's exclusive interview with this magazine) and for those familiar with günter's work both as a composer and improviser, it's likely to come as something of a shock. The pregnant silences are gone, replaced instead by long strands of groaning stringy drone, bowed cymbals and Friedl's inside piano, which sounds more like one of Horatiu Radulescu's "sound icons" (vertically mounted bowed grand pianos). Indeed, if Friedl spent more time playing "traditional" prepared piano, you could be excused for thinking you were listening to AMM. Not only is the music not at all concerned with silence, it's also pretty damn intense, in terms of texture and dynamic. As we've seen above, there are several examples of music that are both lowercase and intense, but Message Urgent's occasional surges in volume, sinister seething drones and at times agitated inside piano scrabblings seem to have nothing at all to do with the genre as previously described. If this stuff is lowercase, so are Rowe, Radulescu, Niblock and Conrad. Mark Wastell is probably right: the term seems to have little meaning anymore. Never mind though what the album isn't: try listening to what it is – a gripping and beautifully paced study in tension and timbre.

It's always a good idea to check out precisely when the music on a disc was recorded, as opposed to released; recordings can sometimes languish in hard drives and in-trays for several years, long enough for the musical landscape in which they originally appeared to change considerably. The duo performances by Axel Dörner and Robin Hayward just released on Marcus Liebig's Absinth label, once more in an elegant hand-stitched oversize sleeve, were recorded back in 2001, when lowercase was at its zenith (how about that for a dumb mixed metaphor). Trumpeter Dörner and tuba player Hayward are both members of the Berlin-based Phosphor collective (along with Burkhard Beins, Alessandro Bosetti, Annette Krebs, Andrea Neumann, Michael Renkel and Ignaz Schick) which released its debut album on Potlatch that year – in fact it was recorded just a week before the two untitled improvisations on this new album – and also played in a trio called rar (again, lowercase letters their idea, not mine) with Radu Malfatti. Though no recordings of that trio have ever emerged (nor did rar ever perform publicly), one imagines the music would have sounded not unlike what's on offer here: understated but far from undramatic, taking advantage of the performers' mastery of extended techniques and making significant use of silence as a structural device to articulate form. And – an important point – blurring the distinction between composition and improvisation. To quote Malfatti: "I'm not too happy with the distinction between improvised and composed music. It's all the same to me: what interests me much more is what can be done in the one or the other. Not why, but how." Interspersed here with the improvisations are two compositions, "Skylines" by Hayward, a brief exploration of rhythmic unison, and "Werchlich" by Dörner, a spare Webernian study in extreme registers and dynamics. Both improvisations and compositions research the same areas of structure and material, creating impressive austere music, albeit not exactly accessible and requiring considerable effort and concentration on the part of the listener. Maybe that always was the hallmark of lowercase / reductionism. I use the past tense deliberately, as the briefest of surveys into what these musicians – be they in Berlin, Tokyo or London – have been up to in the past twelve months reveals that they've moved back from the cliff top to browse in more opulent pastures. Forget the labels, and just listen to the music.—DW

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On Sirr

Various Artists
Sirr 0018

John Hudak / Stephan Mathieu
Sirr 0019

After a compilation album Sul a while back dedicated to reclusive filmmaker Chris Marker, Sirr's Paulo Raposo – a zillion apologies for misspelling his name Paolo on numerous occasions – has chosen another enigmatic and mysterious Frenchman as a point of reference for a collaborative project. Maurice Blanchot (1907 – 2003) was, along with his close friends Emmanuel Levinas, Georges Bataille, René Char and Robert Antelme, one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in modern French writing. His output includes both fiction, notably L'arrêt de mort [Death Sentence] (1948), Celui qui ne m'accompagnait pas [The One Who Was Standing Apart From Me] (1953) and Le dernier homme [The Last Man] (1957) and criticism: Lautréaumont et Sade (1949), and L'espace littéraire [The Space of Literature] (1955) Le pas au-delà [The Step Not Beyond] (1973) and L'Ecriture du désastre [The Writing of Disaster] (1980). “I refuse all the past and accept nothing of the present” he wrote in 1958 on the occasion of the creation of the anti-Gaullist publication Le 14 juillet. He also probably penned the "Déclaration sur le droit à l'insoumission dans la guerre d'Algérie", a public statement of support for those fighting French colonial power in Algeria. Though he surfaced briefly to support the 'Comité d'action étudiants-écrivains' during the événements of 1968, Blanchot remained famous for his reclusiveness. A well-known photograph of him standing next to a car outside a supermarket is cause of widespread interest and rumour. "Tall, thin and cadaverous in appearance," he was often plagued by ill health, though he died at the ripe old age of 96.
Whether the disembodied words spoken by Brandon Labelle and Maria Nilsson come from Celui qui ne m'accompagnait pas or not isn't stated, though the title of their piece "the one who is standing close to me" is a clear reference to the Blanchot work. Unlike much of Labelle's music, in which the concept is often more exciting than its purely audio realisation, this is an instantly attractive piece whose introvert close-miked texts recall the intimacy of Robert Ashley. There's presumably some perfectly rational explanation for the cheeping birdsong too, but by the time you've figured out what Labelle and Nilsson are saying, the disc has moved on. Quebec's Christof Migone's "I" originates in an idea so simple you've probably never considered it: if we can look at an ear, why can't we hear an eye? Migone's piece is "composed entirely of sounds produced by the eyes of Alex Thibodeau as manipulated by himself. Eyelids were stretched, eyeballs jostled and squished, tear ducts made to whistle." Sounds like it must have pretty goddamn painful for Monsieur Thibodeau if you ask me, but fortunately the piece sounds just fine, though knowing in advance where its sound material came from does provoke the Matmos Effect (cf. their overhyped sampling of surgical operations): yeurkk. If Raposo's own "the one who is standing apart from me" (reference clear this time) is a chilly, clanging soundscape that consciously blurs the distinction between inside and outside, Stephen Vitiello's "essential perversions" is resolutely the latter, and seems to have been sourced in recordings of French street protests – perhaps a homage to Blanchot's participation – complete with car horns, whistles and chants, drenched in reverb. The austere drone of Julien Ottavi's "rassarcissment" is followed by Steve Roden's "thomas sat down and looked at the sea", another one of the California-based sound artist's extraordinarily introspective offerings – you almost feel listening is a kind of intrusion – featuring treatments of his voice and guitar, and the album closes with Toshiya Tsunoda's "cicada chorus resonating a bottle inside of a bottle", most definitely not a quotation from Blanchot. One wonders what possible connection there might be between Tsunoda's extremely noisy crickets and the painfully shy writer, but like the other six pieces on the album, it'll have you coming back for more.
Once you've heard the sound of squished eyeballs, you might be curious to know what snow sounds like, or at least what happens when you bury a contact mic in a snowdrift and record it freezing slowly. This is what John Hudak did for his "Winter Garden" (see our review of his collaboration with Jason Kahn in last month's PT), which is joined on Pieces of Winter by Stephan Mathieu's "Nuit Blanche", an exquisite warm drone sourced in recordings of pump organ and ocarina. Hudak isn't the first sound artist to turn his attention to snow – Jason Lescalleet, Francisco López, Alan Courtis and Lasse Marhaug have all tried their hand at recording the elusive substance – but his results, or at least the treatments he and Mathieu have devised for them are as simply beautiful as Mathieu's cover photograph of garden furniture gently buried under several inches of the stuff. In what's fast becoming standard practice nowadays in this brave new world of broadband Internet, the two artists exchanged soundfiles and worked on each other's music, producing a collection of pieces as ravishingly beautiful and deceptively simple as their authorship is vague. Proofreading this article for mistakes, be they mere oversights (typos) or genuine conneries, I'm struck by the disproportionately long review of Noli Me Legere, in comparison with Pieces of Winter, especially since I've played the latter album at least as twice as many times as the former. Maybe after all there's little to say – Pieces of Winter speaks, simply, unpretentiously, clearly, beautifully – and in these times of information overload and market saturation, that's a rare and wonderful thing.—DW

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Audio Culture
Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (ed)
Continuum 454pp
This ambitious and thought-provoking collection of 57 essays on "the new audio culture", edited by Daniel Warner and Christoph Cox, both based at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, also includes a discography and bibliography, both of which are sufficiently wide-ranging and well-researched to ensure that anyone in possession of the all the recordings, books and articles featured would have a pretty good grasp of the past fifty years of music history. Whether the same can be said of the book itself is more debatable; it could be argued that one of the prerequisites for such a publication is to compile a body of writing that would give a researcher 50 or 100 years from now a clear picture of what music / sound art was between the end of World War II and the dawn of the third millennium. This is certainly the case for many of the featured articles – the book does include established classics (Luigi Russolo's 1913 seminal manifesto "The Art of Noises", Henry Cowell's 1929 "The Joys of Noise", John Cage's 1937 "The Future of Music: Credo", Michael Nyman's "Towards (a Definition of) Experimental Music"..) and several texts that might well acquire "classic" status with time (Simon Reynolds'ss "Noise", from his Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, Francisco López's "Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter"..), but there's also a good deal of trendy fluff that would probably strike a reader in the year 2054 as parochial and not a little pretentious.
The book falls into two halves, "Theories" and "Practices", the former subdivided into three sections: "Music and Its Others: Noise, Sound, Silence", "Modes of Listening" and "Music in the Age of Electronic (Re)production", the latter into six: "The Open Work", "Experimental Musics", "Improvised Musics", "Minimalisms", "DJ Culture" and "Electronic Music and Electronica." The first section of "Theories" kicks off with a blast of Jacques Attali's 1985 Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which manages to cross-reference Rousseau, Leibniz and even hint at Rabelais, while studiously avoiding any reference to music or musicians (unless you count Muzak as such). This certainly sets the stage for the sporadic Deleuze / Lyotard / Baudrillard namedropping to come, though I wonder if Cox and Warner wouldn't have been better off starting with the Russolo that follows. "The Art of Noises" is indeed a text whose importance cannot be overstated – just count the number of times it's mentioned in this book alone – and it successfully dwarfs the two brief texts that follow it, Morton Feldman's "Sound, Noise, Varèse, Boulez" and Edgard Varèse's "The Liberation of Sound". Of these, the Feldman is certainly dispensable (surely, given the volume of Feldman writing in print, a more representative and entertaining extract could have been found?) and the Varèse a hotchpotch of quotations spanning a quarter of a century compiled by his student Chou Wen-Chung. Such editing is typical of the book as a whole; in their (understandable) desire to get as much in as possible, Cox and Warner have taken the scissors to a number of texts that perhaps ought to have been presented intact, especially those whose impact depends on their typographical appearance on the page (Cage, of whom more later). Henry Cowell's text is a joy, though. "Since the 'disease' of noise permeates all music, the only hopeful cure is to consider that the noise-germ, like the bacteria of cheese, is a good microbe, which may provide previously hidden delights to the listener, instead of producing musical oblivion," he wrote prophetically back in 1929. (So next time you feel like describing Merzbow as "cheesy", go ahead..) Cage's "The Future of Music: Credo" is just as visionary – having included it, one wonders why Cox and Warner felt the need to add the far less interesting "Introduction to Themes & Variations" later in the book – as is "The Music of the Environment", R. Murray Schafer's landmark sonic ecology manifesto from 1973. Less well-known but genuinely moving is "Listening for Silence: Notes on the Aural Life" by Mark Slouka, whose elegant and touching writing makes the following "Rough Music, Futurism, and Postpunk Industrial Noise Bands" by Mary Russo and Daniel Warner himself seem even more inconclusive and patchy than it probably is. Going from 1770 dictionary definitions to Einsturzende Neubaten via Russolo and Cardew in six pages is as problematic as it sounds. Thank goodness for the common sense wisdom of Simon Reynolds: "[T]o speak of noise, to give it attributes, to claim things for it, is immediately to shackle it with meaning again, to make it part of culture. If noise is where language ceases, then to describe it is to imprison it with adjectives." One wishes Cox and Warner had left it at that for section one, instead of including a brief and not particularly informative interview with Masami "Merzbow" Akita (indeed, one questions whether interviews should have been included at all), especially since such information is widely and freely available on the Internet.
"Modes of Listening" starts off in fine style with the splendidly readable and ever thought-provoking Marshall McLuhan ("Visual and Acoustic Space", from The Global Village), but the following "The Politics of Hearing" by Adorno and Eisler comes across as slight and inconsequential (if Adorno has to be included – which is itself debatable – surely an extract from his more polemical work would have been more appropriate). It's easy to see why Pierre Schaeffer's definition of "Acousmatics", extracted from his Treatise on Musical Objects, has inspired subsequent generations of sound artists, but even Daniel W. Smith's specially commissioned translation doesn't manage to make it especially readable or enjoyable. In contrast, Francisco López is clear and cogent in "Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter" and Ola Stockfelt precise if a little pedantic in "Adequate Modes of Listening" ("analysis of a musical genre, or of a work in a musical genre, must contain and be based on analysis of the listening adequate to that genre.."). Brian Eno's "Ambient Music", like his "The Studio as Compositional Tool" later, is direct to the point of bluntness, after which the Virilio / Heidegger / Deleuze inspired Walkman waffle of Iain Chambers's "The Aural Walk" is, like the work of the rest of the so-called "Birmingham School", just talkin' loud and sayin' nothing. Pauline Oliveros' "Some Sound Observations" is more entertaining, but with Cage on board one wonders why the editors needed more anecdotes, good though they are. Even more baffling is the inclusion of J.K. Randall's utterly potty "Compose Yourself", especially given the volume of fine work he produced as editor of Perspectives of New Music.
"Music in the Age of Electronic (Re)production" begins with Glenn Gould's superbly written and edifying "The Prospects of Recording". Just as entertaining as Gould's creative splicing of a Bach fugue is Eno's deliciously down-to-earth "The Studio as Compositional Tool" ("I can neither read nor write music, and I can't play any instruments really well either. You can't imagine a situation prior to this where anyone like me could have been a composer"). Things go from good to better with John Oswald's "Bettered by the Borrower: The Ethics of Musical Debt" and Chris Cutler's "Plunderphonia" – wonderful to see this sharp and thoughtful article back in print – but Cox and Warner ought to have quit while they were ahead instead of giving the last word to Kodwo Eshun. Compared to Cutler's precise and lucid prose, the AfroDiasporic futurist rhizomorphic fractal discontinuum of "Operating System for the Redesign of Sonic Reality" is best described by the title one of the books Eshun lists in his footnotes: mumbo jumbo.
The second part of the book, "Practices", begins with a selection of essays under the heading "The Open Work". First up is Umberto Eco's 1959 "The Poetics of the Open Work". One wonders whether Pierre Boulez's "Aléa" might not have been more appropriate – indeed, one wonders why Boulez is featured nowhere in the book at all: modernistic avant-garde snob par excellence he might be, but he has authored several key texts on the subject. Compared to Eco's fluid prose, John Cage's "Composition as Process: Indeterminacy" is also rather heavy going and probably could have been dispensed with, and Christoph Cox's own "Visual Sounds: On Graphic Scores" comes off as rather slight, sandwiched as it is between the more substantial offerings by Cage and Earle Brown (though even his "Transformations and Developments of a Radical Aesthetic" seems to have suffered somewhat from cut'n'splice editing). It's a shame David Behrman's superb "What Indeterminate Notation Determines" couldn't have been squeezed in, though the reasons for its exclusion would seem to be clear enough: Cox and Warner don't want to encumber the book with actual musical examples. Which is a shame, since one presumes many of the people who are sufficiently interested in the subject to want to buy and read this book will have more than a passing knowledge of music and a basic grasp of musical notation. Excluding examples of notation for fear they might alienate readers while at the same time throwing in dozens of references to decidedly opaque post-structuralist philosophy seems frankly perverse. Anyway, who cares? Christoph Cox has, after all, pulled off something of a coup by getting John Zorn to grant him an interview as part of the essay "The Game Pieces". And illuminating it is, at least more so than Anthony Braxton's "Introduction to Catalog of Works", of interest no doubt to Braxton buffs but, divorced from the music itself, of limited relevance.
The "Experimental Musics" section presents a strong and representative selection of writings on the subject: Michael Nyman's "Towards (a Definition of) Experimental Music" from his 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, John Cage's "Introduction to Themes & Variations" (probably unnecessary but fun nonetheless), Brian Eno's "Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts", Cornelius Cardew's "A Scratch Orchestra: Draft Constitution" (wouldn't something from the Treatise handbook have been more appropriate? maybe not – that would belong in the "Open Work" section..) and a 2001 David Toop Wire article "The Generation Game: Experimental Music and Digital Culture". In comparison, the section devoted to "Improvised Musics" is rather weak, probably because very little of substance has ever been written on the subject apart from Derek Bailey's book, excerpts from which of course feature here. The liner notes of Ornette Coleman's "Change of the Century" constitute little more than mission statement, and certainly don't qualify as musicology. Frederic Rzewski's "Little Bangs: A Nihilist Theory of Improvisation" is entertaining enough (especially when it provides background to the celebrated Steve Lacy quote on the difference between composition and improvisation: "[I]n composition you have all the time in the world to think about what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds"), but George Lewis's "Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives" seems more interested in discussing genre names and technical terms than actual music (and was bebop really that radically different from the jazz that preceded it? The Charlie Parker / Cage comparison doesn't stretch as far as Lewis would like, methinks). The complex relation between free jazz and free improv, or what Lewis calls Afrological and Eurological, remains to be explored, and the contributions of artists such as Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Zorn and indeed Lewis himself needs to be correctly reassessed.
The section entitled "Minimalisms" – curious: is there more than one, then? I guess so – kicks off with "Rap, Minimalism, and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture" by Susan McClary, described by Cox and Warner as "one of the founders of the 'New Musicology'. Namedropping P.J. Harvey and Tupac Shakur (2Pac minimalist? Yo..) might be new, but rehashing glib clichés about Debussy's discovery of Javanese gamelan in 1889 (David Toop did it better in Exotica) and Stravinsky's Sacre ("in place of allegories of exquisitely wrought Selfhood, he offered collective, ritualized violence") isn't. Kyle Gann's "Thankless Attempts at a Definition of Minimalism" is precisely that: shouldn't complain, though, as my own article on the subject is listed in the bibliography. No surprises to see Steve Reich's seminal 1969 manifesto "Music as a Gradual Process" included, but I wonder if a La Monte Young article might not have been more informative than Wim Mertens's "Basic Concepts of Minimal Music", a text I've taken issue with on a number of occasions and a subject I won't bore you with again here. Instead of Young, we get Tony Conrad's side of the story in "LYssophobia: On Four Violins", swiped from the liners of the Early Minimalism box. Finally, Philip Sherburne's "Digital Discipline: Minimalism in House and Techno" explores some tentative links between early minimalism and techno, in a well-written (and nowhere near long enough!) essay specially commissioned for this volume.
From this point onwards, things begin to unravel. The "DJ Culture" section is notable for László Moholy-Nagy's prophetic "Production-Reproduction: Potentialities of the Phonograph" (an article spliced together from two separate tracts dating from 1922 and 1923 – extraordinary) and Simon Reynolds's "Post-Rock" (at last a decent and convincing definition of the term!). Those familiar with David Toop's Ocean of Sound will recognise "Replicant: On Dub", and William Burroughs aficionados will have no problem spotting the epilogue of The Ticket That Exploded (wouldn't something from Electronic Revolution have been more apposite?). But the chatty dialogue between Christian Marclay and the seriously overrated Yasunao Tone is nothing more than hearty backslapping, and should have been left on the hard drive with the Merzbow interview mentioned earlier. Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky turns in another of his epic performances (some people still call them songs), showing once more that he's just as good at aimless noodling with a pen as with a cross fader. All the tosh about past, present and future backed up with panfuls of quotes from McLuhan, Gertrude Stein, Francis Bacon (not the painter, the other one), Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Plato, Lautréamont, the de rigueur Deleuze & Guattari, Brian Masumi and Miller himself – nothing like putting yourself in good company, eh? – can be boiled down to a couple of lines at the top of page 350: "[T]he DJ acts as the cybernetic inheritor of the improvisational tradition of jazz, where various motifs would be used and recycled by the various musicians of the genre. In this case, however, the records become the notes." Hardly a revelation.
Getting through the book's final section "Electronic Music and Electronica" (and I'm still waiting for a convincing definition of "electronica" – can someone contact Simon Reynolds?) is a real struggle. Jacques Barzun's "Introductory Remarks to a Program of Works Produced at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center" is a wonderful plea for open-mindedness and tolerance but could apply just as well to any genre of "difficult new music", not specifically electronic. Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Electronic and Instrumental Music" is fine, but his "discussion" with Aphex Twin, Scanner and Daniel Pemberton (Richie Hawtin very wisely refused to participate) culled from an old Wire magazine is just a waste of space, albeit an amusing one. Perhaps Cox and Warner's goal was to show how irreconcilable the differences seem to be between generations and genres, but Stockhausen's pompous hectoring is as tedious as Richard James' laddishness. And who today, let alone in 50 years time, will remember Daniel Pemberton? Ben Neill's "Breakthrough Beats: Rhythm and the Aesthetics of Contemporary Electronic Music" is equally parochial, though talks more sense. Thankfully, the concluding "The Aesthetics of Failure: 'Post-Digital' Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music" by Kim Cascone is more readable and sensible than its title would imply.
Despite the reservations listed above – and I am aware there are quite a few, so I suppose I might as well brace myself for yet more irate correspondence – Cox and Warner's book is warmly recommended. It's highly unlikely that readers will have original copies of all the books and articles featured therein, so the simple fact that the editors have gone to the trouble of bringing them together in one volume is to be praised to the skies. But what conclusions would our hypothetical reader in 2054 A.D. come to? Hard to say, as we're still a long way away (pessimists might even wonder if we'll get there at all), but Audio Culture is well worth the price of admission for the writings of Russolo, Cowell, Cage, Schafer, McLuhan, Reynolds, Eno and Cutler, to name but a few. As for Lewis, Braxton, Mertens, Conrad and Paul Miller, skip the words and head straight for their music instead.—DW

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On Emanem
Milo Fine
Emanem 4213 2CD
Masashi Harada
Emanem 4108

Fred Lonberg-Holm
Emanem 4109
Among the recordings made by Milo Fine during a five-week stay in London in 2003, the sessions recorded with local musicians at Free Radicals in the Red Rose will remain as some of the most interesting music released by the Emanem label. Not necessarily the best or the most successful – that depends on what you expect – but the most interesting. The label has already released Scale Points on the Fever Curve, Fine's club date with Derek Bailey, and a quartet set at the Freedom of the City festival 2003 (on Freedom of The City Small Groups 2003) featuring pocket trumpeter Paul Shearsmith, bassist Tony Wren and instrument builder Hugh Davies. Like those two albums, Ikebana (London Encounters) has its lighter moments, but sometimes serious things happen. Minneapolis-based pianist, clarinettist and drummer Fine is content to share the experiences of his playing partners rather than setting his own musical agenda, or following the now standard Berlin or London aesthetics. His duos with clarinettist Alex Ward and the trio with Gail Brand and Paul Shearsmith recorded at the Klinker are enjoyable and flexible, and his gutsy clarinet playing makes a welcome change from the academic approach of many others on this instrument. "April Radicals" is a fine example of an in-the-moment situation succeeding against expectations due to the openness and the experience of the eight players involved (the London bass trio of Tony Wren, Simon H. Fell and Marcio Mattos, violinists Phil Wachsmann and Angharad Davies, Marj McDaid on vocals and Matt Hutchinson on electronics), its 37'40" moving from agitated tutti to solo violin (Angharad Davies). A month later, the May Radicals band consisted of Fine, the latest incarnation of Wren's Quatuor Encorde (with Philipp Wachsmann on violin, Charlotte Hug on viola and Mattos on cello) and Hugh Davies, in a rare and successful appearance. Although Tim Fletcher's recording is far from ideal, the interaction between Davies’ Multy Shozyg and the string quartet is enthralling. The strings amplify Davies’ sounds, colouring them with cunningly chosen pitches, while Fine provides an intelligent instrumental commentary in complete communion with the breath and flow of the five-headed sound machine. You'll wish you'd been in the Red Rose that night.—JMVS.

The follow-up to 1999's Enter The Continent features a slightly different line-up of the Masashi Harada Condanction Ensemble; out go the heavy brasses of Tucker Dulin, Christian Pincock and Eric Carlson and the electric guitar of Phil Tomasic, in comes the viola of Frederic Viger, the cellos of Glynis Lomon (replacing Dan Levin on the earlier disc) and Vic Rawlings, the accordion of Jonathan Vincent, the theremin of James Coleman and the percussion of Tatsuya Nakatani. Still on board are the nmperign duo of Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley, bassist Mike Bullock and violinist Aleta Cole. All in all Harada's band features then no fewer than five members of BSC, the other Boston-based large improv outfit, but Enterprising Mass of Cilia couldn't be more different from the BSC's Good. It's a wild, stochastic sprawl of thrilling ugliness, a clot of instant Xenakis, seething with glissandi and clusters (Vincent's accordion is especially prominent). Small flashes of nmperignesque emptiness poke through from time to time – soprano saxophonist Rainey seems intent on re-exploring his microtonal Maneri roots – but Harada likes his musical canvases as dense and colourful as his ice paintings (examples of which appear in the CD booklet), and soon makes sure that Kelley and Rainey's identifiable splutters are peppered with screes of scratchy strings. A worthy addition to Emanem's large ensemble catalogue (along with Markus Eichenberger's Domino Orchestra, The Gathering and the inevitable LIO), but if I were Bhob, Greg or Mike I'd think twice next time before letting Martin Davidson get his paws on such dreadful photos.
Davidson's label is just as well known for its fine solo releases as its epic large ensemble outings, and Fred Lonberg-Holm's Dialogs joins Paul Rogers' Listen (2002) and Charlotte Hug's Neuland (2004) as one of the most impressive solo stringed instrument releases of recent times. "The cello will never be the same, and neither will I", writes percussionist Michael Zerang in his liners, and he should know, having partnered Lonberg-Holm on numerous occasions, often teaming up with a third player to make a kickass trio (with Axel Dörner on Claque, John Butcher on Tincture, Jaap Blonk on Meetings and Sten Sandell on Disappeared). Be that as it may, though the album's title Dialogs is curious; the idea of dialogue might apply to baroque counterpoint, but if your idea of solo cello is Pierre Fournier playing the Bach suites, you'd better steer weeeell clear of this one. Fred's one of the few improvisers willing to get into the ring with the wild and wonderful Weasel Walter (of Flying Luttenbachers fame) – go check out Eruption with Kevin Drumm – and he's not afraid to treat the instrument as what it is: a great big wooden box with potentially dangerous high tension metal stretched precariously across it. Lonberg-Holm is able to create textures of considerable complexity, using his piezo pickups and tiny lo-fi speakers to set up grainy loops of nasty feedback he can scrape along with quite happily, so the resulting counterpoint – dialogue, if you will – is more one of confrontation between the performer and his materials than an intramusical play of pitches and rhythms (though there is a delicious snatch of melody, yep that's right, you heard correctly, just before the end of "Dialog 2"). In this respect it recalls Brian Ferneyhough's supremely ugly and ferociously difficult "Time and Motion Study II" for cello and electronics, but whereas composer Ferneyhough apparently seeks to destroy the performer altogether by providing him/her with a score whose sheer technical difficulties are deliberately insurmountable, Fred Lonberg-Holm shows that the same thoroughly enjoyable highly invigorating snarling vicious mess can be achieved with relatively simple equipment. What is needed though to pull it off is an intimate knowledge of the instrument and its possibilities, and an impeccable sense of timing. Technique, in a word. And Lonberg-Holm has plenty of it.—DW

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John Abercrombie
ECM 1846
Cat ’n’ Mouse, Abercrombie’s previous album for ECM, was a small classic: the graceful, smouldering lyricism was familiar territory for the guitarist, but it coexisted with an unusual amount of openness, and the album even had a couple of freely improvised pieces. For Class Trip he's reconvened the same band as before, with violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Baron (both of whom have sterling inside/outside chops honed among the outcats of the New York scene), and the great Marc Johnson on bass. As the band has become a working unit there have been losses: the music has become sweeter and more streamlined, and the open spaces largely filled in – the two improvisations this time, for instance, are brief and not all that substantial. But there are also compensations: by now Abercrombie and Feldman are working hand-in-glove, and when they play together it’s more twining two-horn duo than violin-plus-accompaniment. Class Trip opens on a high with “Dansir,” a languorous mood-piece with a sting in its tail, and although some of the tracks are a tad soft-edged there’s plenty to keep the listener’s ears perked, like the Ornettish “Swirls” or a lovely, unexpected improvisation over Bartók’s “Soldier’s Song.” Feldman is in particularly fine form: in the past I’ve often found him too insistently dazzling – he’s a specialist in flaring, licks-heavy arabesques – but the pairing with Abercrombie brings out some of his subtlest and most intimate work.—ND

Live at Glenn Miller Café
Ayler aylCD 020
Step through the front door of the Glenn Miller Café, tucked away in a quiet Stockholm side street, turn sharp right and you'll probably knock the upright piano over. The bandstand – that's a misnomer: it's a corner – is barely ten feet square, and the club itself isn't much bigger, and invariably packed to capacity. Food is served from 5pm onwards (the Swedes are even worse than the British when it comes to dining early) and you'd be well advised to reserve in advance. The place and its atmosphere are warm and friendly, and the food delicious: the chef's French, or at least the one they had a year ago was. The sign "Skivinspelning" outside tells you tonight's concert, which will probably consist of three 45 minute sets, is going to be recorded, and the chances are the sandy-haired gent at the bar nursing a bottle of best Belgian beer with a contented smile on his face is Ayler Records' Jan Ström. After all, nearly a quarter of all the albums he's released so far were recorded here, and this is the latest.
SURD is a quartet consisting of guitarist David Stackenäs, alto / tenor man Fredrik Nordström, bassist Filip Augustson and drummer Thomas Strønen, and the music on offer here was recorded on June 14th and 15th 2004. In homage to Steve Lacy, whose death had been announced a few days earlier, proceedings open with "38", from the late great saxophonist's old Emanem treasure The Crust. It's a great start to the album, with Augustson and Strønen chopping merrily away at Lacy's trademark relentless major and minor seconds. Stackenäs's guitar is taut and springy, with a rough Sharrock bottleneck lyricism well suited to the Last Exit-ish unison of his "Hello Paul". The rhythm section is inventive and rubbery on the uptempo numbers, but sounds rather flabby on "Head P", Nordström's homage to Bristol trip-hoppers Portishead, whose music's intensity derives as much from the claustrophobic looped samples of dirty vinyl as from its melancholy minor harmony (something that, with the best will in the world, can't be pulled off by a live rhythm section: Strønen's just aching to get busy with the brushes and the piece just won't let him). The group effort that follows, "Bye Bye Teddy" is much more effective, and the tough pedal points of Augustson's "Magnum Bonum" – shades of Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, yeah! – is a great way to close the set and send the punters out on a high into the streets of dear old Stockholm. Just mind you don't knock the piano over on the way out.—DW

Per Henrik Wallin Trio
Ayler aylCD 032
One of Jan Ström's missions with Ayler Records has been to showcase Swedish free jazz, either by promoting young lions like SURD (see above), or by unearthing archive recordings by older players who deserve to be much better known: Bengt Frippe Nordström, Anders Gahnhold and, with this extraordinary release, pianist Per Henrik Wallin. The Stockholm Tapes compiles recordings made at the Jazz Club Fasching on August 5th 1975 and two years later at the Kägelbanan, on August 17th 1977. Wallin is joined by alto saxophonist Lars-Göran Ulander and drummer Peter Olsen, who also apparently recorded the sets. The piano / alto / drums line-up inevitably invites comparison with the classic Cecil Taylor / Jimmy Lyons / Sunny Murray outfit that set Scandinavia aflame in the early 60s (and arguably kick-started what ultimately became European free improvisation), but, instrumentation aside, there's little to compare. Wallin's pianism is closer to McCoy Tyner, Dollar Brand and maybe even Keith Jarrett (recording quality aside, you could almost mistake it for early Matthew Shipp too), with plenty of piled up fourths and ecstatic flurries of arpeggios. He's not averse to the odd CT-style fisticuffs and left hand power octaves, but the lean, mean motivic workout that characterises the Taylor Units is replaced here with florid lyricism, supple yet strong. Behind it all lies the modality of the Coltrane quartet, but Ulander's alto playing shows precious few signs of Trane's influence; instead, it's a wonderfully loose, gangly affair, taking ideas like modelling clay and twisting them into odd miniatures before moving on. Behind the kit, Olsen has no intentions of outdoing Elvin either, preferring painting to power with light, splattery cymbal and snare work (definite shades of Murray here). But it's Wallin who steals the show – the extended solo in the opening "E.V." is a thing of wonder. Check it out.—DW

Faruq Z. Bey & Northwoods Improvisers
Entropy Stereo ESR 015
If "Northwoods Improvisers" sounds amateurish and hokey, don't be put off – this outing, the third and best so far for Entropy by Griot Galaxy former head honcho Faruq Z. Bey, is as solid, sincere and satisfying a dose of new jazz as anything dished up in the past two years by other better known US labels. The improvisers in question, in addition to Bey on tenor and alto, are Mike Carey (tenor and bass clarinet, though the booklet photo also shows him wielding a soprano), Skeeter Shelton (tenor), Mike Gilmore (vibes and marimba), Mike Johnston (bass) and Nick Ashton (drums). The three tenors – no puns intended, Mr Pavarotti – manage to stay well out of each other's way, thanks to some tight arrangement and judicious microphone placing, leaving plenty of room for the splendid vibes / bass / drums rhythm team to drive the music forward. After the invigorating uptempo modal bop of the opening "Gemini", "Zychron" gets into a delicious mid-tempo groove, with whole tone harmony reminiscent of Bobby Hutcherson's work on Dolphy's "Hat and Beard". "Isolation" is a supple and lyrical ballad penned by Gilmore and Johnston, who also puts Gilmore's marimba to good use in "Vines", swinging six as easily and seductively as vintage Max Roach. After another Bey original, "Auzar (Osiris)", the final "The Call" returns to the time-honoured Ascension tradition of letting a tiny germinal motif spiral into orbit and explode into a constellation of thrilling solos. Looking for some authentic fire music to burn off the accumulated calories of the festive season? Look no further.—DW

Lisle Ellis / Marco Eneidi / Peter Valsamis
CIMP 312
Recorded in CIMP's Spirit Room on May 17th and 18th 2004 (as usual Bob Rusch's liners go into all kinds of detail, including even the local weather forecast), this is a smoking session from a trio that deserves the kind of attention and exposure usually reserved for the likes of Shipp, Parker and Ware. Marco Eneidi's running head to head with Ivo Perelman for the Most Unfairly Neglected Living Great Free Jazz Saxophonist Award, but it's to be hoped that this outing and the recent Botticelli release Live At Spruce Street Forum (with Peter Brötzmann, Jackson Krall and Ellis once more) will turn some more heads his way. The fact that no fewer than 7 out of 12 tracks on American Roadwork are entitled "Blues" is significant, as Eneidi digs deep into the blues – we're talking the spirit rather than the letter of the law –to reveal some dirty and sweaty roots to his playing. He's all too frequently compared to his erstwhile teacher Jimmy Lyons, but as I've said elsewhere there's plenty of Ornette and Moondoc in there too. Of course, Lyons has left his mark in the fleet post-bop flurries of "Shock and Awe Shucks", "Dreamt Up Blues #5" and the title track, all of which go so damn fast you can almost hear a Doppler effect, but the dangerous curves he drives on a dirty sheet (to quote Tom Waits) in the opening "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Contractual Obligation Blues" are low, slinky, musky and irresistible. Bassist Lisle Ellis is the ideal partner, melodically curvaceous and suggestive on the slower cuts and impossibly agile on the uptempo numbers, and drummer Peter Valsamis inventive throughout, especially as a soloist. Sorry to bitch once again about the CIMP recording aesthetic – I have total respect for and understanding of Marc Rusch's work – but I wonder if a slightly flashier drum sound might not have helped matters a little. Still, a piddling quibble, to be honest. This is great stuff and copies should be sent post-haste to every major festival promoter throughout the civilised world.—DW

Cecil Taylor
Cadence CJR 1169
Just about everything that can be written on Cecil Taylor has already been written, it often seems to me. The problem isn't Taylor, but any other pianist who attacks the instrument flat out with palms, fists, and forearms automatically gets compared to him, when in reality Taylor's playing is utterly original and totally unmistakable, with its contrary motion arpeggios, thumping left hand octaves and flurries of identical chords (keep those fingers in the same position as you race up and down the keyboard and harmonic coherence is guaranteed, as all the individual elements of Taylor's monumental cluster volleys are transpositions of each other). It's also absolutely exhausting and simultaneously invigorating, as you struggle to follow the music's ferocious pitch and rhythmic logic. I saw this particular incarnation of the CT trio with Dominic Duval on bass and Jackson Krall on drums back in 1997 at the Village Vanguard and I actually found myself falling asleep (no shit), so dense and overwhelming was the torrent of musical information washing over me. This recording of the same trio in action in Minneapolis three years later (for precise information on the way the album was put together and fascinating recollections of those who attended the concert itself on February 19th 2000, go to www.bagatellen.com) has the same effect, if you let it. Much has been made of the Codanza monster box documenting Taylor's trio with William Parker and Tony Oxley, but the Duval / Krall line-up is equally worthy of your attention. And that's about all I can say about this one – words fail. Just listen.—DW

Joost Buis
Data 041
It sometimes seems as if the Netherlands have a lock on Duke Ellington. Sure, there are dyed-in-the-wool Ellingtonians in the States – Ray Anderson, for instance – and plenty of Duke covers and tributes and whatnot out there (don’t talk to me about that creep at Lincoln Center), but if you want to hear great big bands in the Ellington tradition, catch a flight to Amsterdam. Or get hold of trombonist Joost Buis’s Astronotes, a tentet disc recorded last year at the BimHuis. This is Ellington with a dose of hot sauce, and a little grease too, courtesy Paul Pallesen’s steaming guitar work and Cor Fuhler’s ice-cold organ. Buis’s pieces are elegant sonic microcosms, complex little worlds spinning on their own axes. The results are dizzying, like a roadhouse band playing a 10-part canon; or sometimes voluptuous, as in “Tunguska Butterfly”, which stretches out grandly like an expanse of sea, all sunlight and rippling waves. Buis pays fine tribute to Tricky Sam Nanton on “Nantones”, a piece whose inward-looking, dark-night-of-the-soul grandeur suggests classic Gil Evans. He otherwise cedes the spotlight to fellow band members: there are excellent spots for saxophonists Tobias Delius (a tender-tough delight on “Ple4”), Frans Vermeerssen and Jan Willem van der Ham; the Australian cornettist Felicity Provan contributes an arresting talking-horn solo to “The Eggs”. In addition to Pallesen and Fuhler the rhythm section features ubiquitous bassist Wilbert de Joode and Alan Purves and Michael Vatcher – drummers sharing a taste for mayhem but also capable of surprising delicacy in tandem.
What’s most impressive is that despite its little-big-band format Astronotes has the urgency and intimacy of a small-group session; it’s not merely raucous or pretty or streamlined, like so many big band albums. Along with the new discs by Paul Pallesen’s Bite the Gnatze (Wilde dans in een afgelegen Berghut, Trytone) and Bik Bent Braam (Growing Pains, BBB), both of which feature many of the same players, Astronotes is one of the best large-ensemble discs of 2004.—ND

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Pi 14
Listening to the crying-in-the-wilderness alto of Rudresh Mahanthappa puts you in mind of both Coltrane and Steve Coleman – which is to say it’s an intense experience: apocalyptic, hyperintelligent and rather humourless. His improvisations are insistent and slippery, full of baroque tangles of phrases fast-forwarded unabsorbably past the ear. It’s thrilling, sensuous music – not least because of the fevered odd-meter grooves that set the head nodding even when you haven’t the faintest where “one” is – but it’s also unsettling and a little bruising.
Mother Tongue is his third album, featuring the same band as its predecessor Black Water (Vijay Iyer, piano; François Moutin, bass; Elliot Humberto Kavee, drums). Seven of the pieces come from a recent project responding to American cross-cultural ignorance: “In response to having been repeatedly asked ‘Do You Speak Indian?’ or ‘Do You Speak Hindu?’ throughout my life as a son of immigrants, my goal was to somehow musically convey the fact there is no single Indian language. I did this by creating compositions that are directly based on melodic transcriptions of Indian-Americans responding to such questions in their native Indian tongues.” (See Mahanthappa’s comments at http://pirecordings.com/features/mother_tongue.html.) The results are alien, awkward streams of notes – urgent broadcasts within a narrow frequency band, more like transmissions than melodies but pressed into service as baleful ceremonial dances. The raw sonic material isn’t perhaps all that diverse, but that hardly matters: Mahanthappa makes dark, cathartic yet surprisingly varied music out of it. Three "ordinary" tunes vary the program: “The Preserver” (title-tune from an earlier, still-unreleased album), the unexpectedly balmy “Circus”, and “Change of Perspective”, which features a surprisingly tractable, Dolphyish introduction from the leader.
The band’s rapport is intense and seamless; there are no signposted beginnings or endings to solos, the leader almost never takes extended spotlighted turns, and everything ends up more or less part of the same fabric. Moutin and Kavee are terrific – sample their handling of the blurred-motion beat-cycle on “The Preserver” for starters – but in some ways the linchpin is Iyer, who can be as heated as the leader but also introduces touches of light and whimsy: bright Moranish runs flitting up the keyboard, oases of serene chords, broken-backed two-handed fantasias, lines that slither around the keyboard then vanish down a hole.
This is not an easy album to come to terms with: indeed, it’s more challenging than the vast majority of “free” music of whatever persuasion. Mahanthappa and Iyer are players pushing hard from within jazz to reinvent it. What they're doing is perverse and absolutely necessary.—ND

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Stackenäs / Sandell / Parker / Guy / Lytton
psi 04.10
This new release on Evan Parker’s psi label was recorded at Freedom of the City 2004 and features Swedish improvisers Sten Sandell (piano) and David Stackenäs (guitar) in solo and duet improvisations before they're joined by the Parker / Guy / Lytton trio for a 33-minute collective quintet piece. psi has already released Parker-curated events focusing on collaborative efforts where the saxophonist gives free rein to his guests (cf Appleby Free Zone 2003 with the string quartet of Phil Wachsmann, Sylvia Hallett, Marcio Mattos and John Edwards, not to mention Kenny Wheeler, Tony Coe and Alan Hacker). His message is clear: my music is also our music, a collective effort of people sharing the musical moment (the Free Zone 2002 double has only two tracks featuring Parker). The first two tracks on this disc, "Jansson's Temptation 1 & 2", formed the second set of the Sunday afternoon concert of the festival, which I attended and reviewed for the French magazine Improjazz – see the July 2004 issue – while the quintet piece was that afternoon's third set (the first was the London appearance of Parker / Guy / Lytton in eight years). A Romantic / Germanic feel pervades the magnificent piano playing of Sten Sandell, a former Mats Gustafsson associate in the 90s power trio Gush, but his strong-arm attack doesn’t detract from his precise fingering and lightness of touch. Although not as idiosyncratic as the likes of Van Hove or Schlippenbach, Sandell is a skilful and original improviser (check out Solyd on Sofa). So is Stackenäs, whose acoustic guitar solo (track two) was a personal highlight of FOTC 2004. Sounding a bit like a detuned John Russell, Stackenäs evokes the strange lute and harp music of Ethiopia, Kenya or Mauritania, sustaining pace and inspiration throughout (knitting needles notwithstanding). Check out his Guitar on Häpna while you're at it. "Gubbröra" itself, the meeting of the Parker / Guy / Lytton trio with the Swedish, is an opportunity for reflection, intense listening and true collective effort rather than heated exchange, due one supposes to Stackenäs's acoustic instrument and Sandell's continuous but discreet electronics. Forget the virtuosic and spectacular soloing these guys are capable of: this is music of patient exploration with nothing to prove or show off, whose raison d'être is simply to communicate and share. Recommended.—JMVS

Evan Parker/Alex von Schlippenbach/Paul Lytton
psi 04.06/7 2CD
The two discs of this set were recorded a fortnight apart during a hectic North American tour, and you can still feel the buzz. Both performances start calmly enough, but within minutes they’ve reached whirlwind speed – Lytton’s drumming in particular is almost absurdly accelerated. Nowadays Parker sometimes seems trapped by his own mastery, reproducing virtuosic, self-contained arabesques verbatim from album to album, but his playing here is more varied and unexpected, occasionally lyrical but more often gruff and urgent –check out the hoarse climax to “Down With All Those Who Do Not Believe In Us”. Even the obligatory soprano set piece, “The Breath of Coldness,” offers a few twists once past the business-as-usual opening. Schlippenbach keeps the music perpetually within sight of jazz idioms, shoving quartal chords around like a hyperactive Mal Waldron, but also likes to lace the piano’s interior with bric-a-brac, eliciting an impressive array of clatterings, splats and buzzes. There are calm moments on America 2003, even a track called “Perhaps This Was His Chance” offering a weird mix of gamelan, Cage and Meade Lux Lewis – but what gives the music its excitement is the sense that it’s always a step away from another insanely accelerated spin-cycle. It’s scary enough how fast and dense it gets; even scarier, it’s delivered so lucidly you can actually follow it even at warp speed.—ND

Schraum 1
Like much recent improv, this trio outing featuring Antoine Chessex (saxophone), Axel Haller (bass) and Torsten Papenheim (guitar) is deadly, even dully, serious, either working itself up into a spitty fluster (track one) or brooding grey à la Werner Dafeldecker (track six – all seven cuts are, by the way, untitled). Their music is at its least engaging when it tries to bring pitch into play, ending up sounding like soggy second division Feldman. In opting to pursue the elusive quarry of new sounds and extended techniques, there's a definite risk these days of improvisers erasing all trace of individual personality along with every vestige of classical technique – the baby and the bath water syndrome – and for all its noble intentions (this music proclaims its earnestness throughout) the lasting impression one comes away with is one of mild frustration at something well wrought, perfectly competent and listenable, but somewhat featureless and lacking in identity.—DW

Tim Olive / Buhnsho Nisikawa
Gule Disk Gule 001
"We had fun recording this," runs the press release from Osaka-based Gule Disk accompanying the label's first release. "A bunch of time spent in a huge glass-wall room atop a vertical amusement park, a roller coaster regularly banking past, eight floors above street level, looking out on Osaka: neon suspended over every possible grey." Eloquent stuff (we'll excuse the "bunch of time" bit), and the view out of the window sounds spectacular, but the music that Tim Olive and Buhnsho Nisikawa make using two guitars and a broken record player is claustrophobic in the extreme, and as intriguing and unfathomable as the track titles, which seem to be in both Japanese and English. The longest piece, "tiNu / Supernatural Hot Rug And Not Used" (told you), is the most interesting, sort of like a trash version of Annette Krebs jamming with Sachiko M, dainty and demure turned dangerous and dirty. It's a music of tiny gestures writ large – crank the amps high enough and just rubbing your hand along the neck of a guitar sounds like a wildlife documentary about the Serengeti. "ankoU / The Great Bustard" sounds less like a bird and more like a hippopotamus emerging from a mud bath to eat the microphone and the sound engineer holding it. Real amusement park stuff for sure.—DW

Serge Baghdassarians / Boris Baltschun / Alessandro Bosetti / Michel Doneda
Potlach P204

Strom documents a March 2004 performance at Berlin’s Ausland venue by a quartet consisting of three Berlin-based musicians – Baghdassarians on guitar and mixing desk, Baltschun on sampler, and Bosetti on soprano saxophone – and a visiting Frenchman, Doneda, on soprano and sopranino saxophones. Constructed out of an array of hissing, rumbling and spluttering electronics and respiring reeds, its seven tracks exemplify electro-acoustic improvisation as a process of rebuilding the ship while it’s still at sea, as the constant entrances, changes and exits from each individual player create a collective kaleidoscopic flow of evolving juxtapositions. Free from teleology and fixed pulse, the group’s collages of organic breath and inorganic machine shift unpredictably but engrossingly between urgent intensity and brooding quietude, and in general the music possesses a propensity to both gross and subtle change that pleasantly distinguishes it from the rather petrified nullifications sometimes to be heard at the more "lowercase" end of the musical spectrum. A pleasure to the attentive ear, this is an excellent and strongly recommended disc.—WS

Stéphane Rives
Potlach P303
Fibres brings together seven circular-breathing soprano saxophone solos, grouped by Rives into three categories. The two tracks classified as “Larsen et le roseau” feature a stream of breathy emissions underlying a separate continuous high-pitched line shifting in frequency and intensity as a result of what appear to be both controlled modulations and the inevitable irregularities in the demanding process of simultaneously breathing in and blowing out. In the three “Granulations” the high-pitched line is dispensed with in favour of an exclusive focus on the microscopic world of unpitched respiratory flows through the interior of the saxophone. The final group of two tracks that bear the title “Ébranlement” (harsh) are rather more difficult to describe, and perhaps the siren-like “Ébranlement #1” and the stridulous “Ébranlement #2” ultimately share little more than a certain quality of harshness. However that may be, Rives’ work across the CD is uniformly excellent. Recordings of experimental solo saxophone run the risk of degenerating into quasi-scientific reports of isolated sonic effects divorced from any interesting musical application, but Fibres fortunately avoids such sterility, not least because of its incorporation of frequent, subtle and engaging shifts of pitch, volume and texture within each track. I was particularly taken with the “Granulations”, a set of almost aquatic coursings and undulations that seem to represent a signal advance in the peculiar poetry of percolating phlegm that a small band of advanced reeds and brass players have been developing over the last decade. This is without doubt difficult and demanding music that demands repeated close listening in favorable circumstances and may well prove wholly inaccessible to many, but it is well worth expending some time and attention on, for it holds out to the sympathetic listener a rewarding intricacy of improvised passages with which to engage.—WS

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Alvin Curran
New World 80625-2 2CD
"Hark, now hear the sailors cry / Smell the sea and feel the sky /Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic" – Van Morrison
Previously available "intermittently" on cassette through Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening Foundation, Alvin Curran's Maritime Rites, commissioned in 1984 as a ten-part series for National Public Radio in 1984 and subsequently broadcast on over 60 stations throughout the USA, is now available at last as a double CD from New World, complete with an informative booklet including an extended essay by David Toop. It's fitting that the author of Haunted Weather should have been involved in this project, as Curran's exhaustive month-long tour of the Eastern seaboard of the USA with producer Melissa Gould to record "virtually every foghorn, bell buoy, maritime gong and whistle along the way" (not to mention local wildlife and the recollections of local inhabitants, from coastguards to museum curators to lobster fishermen) resulted in a unique collection of what R. Murray Schaefer once called soundmarks, many of which retained particular significance for Curran, who grew up in Rhode Island. Moreover, many of the extraordinary sounds they recorded have since disappeared, including the amazing hum of traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge (since acoustically muted to appease local residents) and the extraordinary diaphone horn of the now-decommissioned Nantucket II Lightship. While many of today's talented young sound artists would probably be quite content to leave such magnificent sounds more or less alone, Curran's stroke of genius – the word is not inappropriate – was to combine his sounds with music provided by leading improvisers and composers of his acquaintance. In addition to poet Clark Coolidge and Curran himself, the list of the participating musicians reads like a Who's Who of new music at the interface of composition and improvisation: Joseph Celli, Jon Gibson, Malcolm Goldstein, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros and Leo Smith. Additional spoken text roles are allotted to John Cage, Anthony Braxton and Curran's former composition teacher, Elliott Carter. But none of this description can prepare you for Curran's ravishing montages of speech, music and environmental sound. The ear is utterly outstanding, and examples are numerous, from the marriage of Malcolm Goldstein's skittery harmonic-saturated From Center of Rainbow and the honking seals and ducks of Lime Island via the Robinson's Rock whistle buoy accompanying Pauline Oliveros' Rattlesnake Mountain to the work's deeply moving conclusion, folklorist Bill Bonyun of Westport Island Maine singing "Rolling Home" along with the foghorns of Upper New York Harbour. "When that fog horn blows I will be coming home" indeed. Damn the deadlines that forced me to select the best records of 2004 for The Wire before I'd even received this one, because it's right up there sharing the number one spot with Akira Rabelais. A drop-dead masterpiece you cannot afford to be without.—DW

Lukas Ligeti
Tzadik TZ 7099
"Lukas Ligeti's music is deeply rooted in a cosmopolitan cultural mix. Born in Vienna, Austria, to Hungarian parents.." it says here. There's probably something Oedipal about not wanting to publicise the fact that you're the son of none other than György Ligeti, certainly one of the twentieth century's major composers, but maybe we should leave that question to another Viennese founding father, Mr Freud. Whatever the relationship between father and son, it's clear Lukas managed to inherit his dad's enthusiasm for music in all its forms, as he lists influences as diverse as African drumming (he's also a fine improvising percussionist, as those with a copy of Heavy Meta will testify) and folk fiddling from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. The problem is that, unlike Ligeti Sr., who absorbed the music of everyone from Brahms to Central African pygmies via Reich and Nancarrow and distilled it into 100% pure Ligeti, it's hard to find a distinctive Lukas Ligeti voice in the five pieces on offer here. "Moving Houses" was originally written for Kronos, and it's vintage Kronos stuff, a snazzy PoMo patchwork with nods to the user-friendly end of the twentieth century string quartet repertoire from Bartók to Riley. Its ability to sustain rhythmic momentum while never really locking into one unifying groove (I'd love to see a score of this one) is impressive, but in the midst of snatches of Hardanger fiddle and tango, the attention seems to wander. The music doesn't unfold as much as unravel. The two percussion pieces "Pattern Transformation" and "Independence" are similarly accessible and enjoyable without ever becoming really memorable. "New York to Neptune", a 1'40" snapshot for string quartet and drum machine (which "deliberately uses some of the oldest and most well-worn drum box sounds", though I'm not complaining), serves to clear the air before the final "Delta Space", which uses a Yamaha Disklavier and sampler to simulate the rhythmic complexity of West African music. This indeed "takes the African influence full circle" but also recalls Clarence Barlow's celebrated deconstruction of Beethoven's Op.111 Arietta in "Variazioni e un pianoforte meccanico", and, inevitably, the fabulous polyphonic pile-ups of Conlon Nancarrow's player piano studies – whose importance for Ligeti père can't be overestimated. Fortunately, Ligeti fils' sampler thickens the plot by throwing in the sounds of voices, African harp, balaphone and n'goni, but the piece still ends up treading water somewhat. One wonders how it'll age, but I'll be happy come back to it ten years from now and find out.—DW

Joël-François Durand
Mode 139
Joël-François Durand was born in Orléans, France, in 1954, but studied with Brian Ferneyhough in Freiburg and Bülent Arel and Daria Semegen at SUNY Stony Brook. Since 1991 he's been Professor of Composition at the University of Washington. There's certainly little evidence of a Ferneyhough influence to Durand's music, and it's just as hard to spot anything particularly French about it, apart from a good ear for instrumental timbre and spectral harmonic logic (though since when was that the exclusively property of the French?) in "La terre et le feu" and perhaps a fleck of Messiaen in "Les raisons des forces mouvantes" – but that could just be the fact it was written for a pipe organ: do please excuse me, but I just can't get enthusiastic about that horrible instrument. "La terre et le feu", an oboe concerto in all but name, also spawned enough material for an extended oboe / viola duet, "La mesure des choses III: La mesure de la terre et du feu". Both works are expertly performed by oboist Gareth Hulse, violist Paul Silverthorne and the London Sinfonietta. The concluding "Athanor", an orchestral work dating from 2001, is more laboured though, and not even the gifted Pierre-André Valade at the helm of the BBCSO can stop it getting bogged down in lethargic and rather dull 19th century cliché. Durand should leave the "dramatic" timpani rolls to bearded Estonian mystics and concentrate on the limpid beauty of his chamber music.—DW

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United States of Belt
Chlöe 005 / Champ 05
Apparently it's taken "years" for Seth Barger and Ross Goldstein, aka USOB, to put together this "audio film of the all-American small town at its very best". Sourced from recordings made across the country and various live events, including a performance based around a game of ping pong (dig the hand-painted signs by Mr. Joe Signs That Go!") and some tasty banjo picking courtesy of Vic Rawlings. The only comparable US travelogue hörspiel is Luc Ferrari's Far West News, but Pancake Alley is richer and more elusive than that; Barger and Goldstein avoid the aren't-I-cute narrative interjections that spoil Ferrari's work (indeed, they disappear altogether: Goldstein's credited on polaroids and mix and Barger not at all). Most of the reviews that the album has garnered so far have dwelt on the "American-ness" of it all, but the queasy Wurlitzer that opens "Ping Pong Holiday" is playing nothing less than Gerry and the Pacemakers' "You'll Never Walk Alone" (anthem of Liverpool Football Club.. John Peel smiles down benignly from the hereafter) a timely reminder that America, like this splendid album, is itself a cunning and complex mix of diverse and surprising elements.—DW

Goh Lee Kwang
Herbal ISBN 3-937158-00-6
Malaysian-born Goh Lee Kwang's Innere Freuden ("Internal Pleasures") comes with an A5 handout containing the following text: "By using an analog DJ mixer with the line connection of 'output back to input', the electronic signal becomes audioable [sic] NO synth, NO pre-programming, NO on going effects and NO post-overdub." (That's almost as many "no"s as a Lou Reed interview..) Dunno whether Lee's contemplating teaming up with Toshimaru "No Input Mixing Desk" Nakamura, Sachiko "No Samples In The Sampler" M and Otomo "No Records On The Turntable" Yoshihide, but the seven tracks on offer here are every bit as austere and compelling as that trio's recent excellent Good Morning Good Night double on Erstwhile. I admit I still have a soft spot for the more eclectic train wreck electronica of GLK's Nerve Center, but no matter – the vocabulary here is drastically pared down but he still uses to poetic effect. Innere Freuden is by no means an easy listen, but it's a very rewarding one.—DW

Häpna H 19
For his first solo outing outside of the celebrated Mego label he joined back in 1995 – has it really been so long?– Peter "Pita" Rehberg delivers eight choice cuts of laptoppery running the gamut from evanescent drone ("Eternel") to spikes and splinters ("By bath") and back again ("Retour"). The album title (with an extra "t") was the name of a Prince song a while back, but I seriously doubt Herr Rehberg intends this as a homage to the Purple Dwarf of Paisley Park.. Instead it invites comparison with 2002's Get Down LP (Mego 049) and especially 1999's Get Out (Mego 029), but whereas that album was built around the monumental and monumentally gritty third track, its equivalent on this Häpna offering, the magnificently-titled "Like watching shit on a shelf" comes off as a smoother, lighter affair (smoother in part thanks to the classy mastering of Marcus Schmickler). But lightness of touch does not mean loss of quality: Get Off, along with Rehberg's recent riotous and raucous Work Hard Play Harder with Zbigniew Karkowski, is further solid proof that he's still floating up there with the cream of the laptop crop. Get Ur Pita on.—DW

Julien Ottavi
w.m.o/r 15
Mattin's w.m.o/r label continues its uncompromising journey along the fringes of sound art where ultra loud and ultra quiet find common ground with this 65 minute composition by Nantes-based sound artist Julien Ottavi (of Formanex fame). Using only extreme low and high frequencies, Ottavi's work is based on the premise that sound recorded on CDR (as opposed to commercially produced CDs) is destined to deteriorate. So is your health, I imagine, if you have a sound system powerful enough to play this one loud: the low-end frequencies gradually induce a feeling of unease and claustrophobia verging on nausea. By the time the thing fizzes into life after the 54-minute mark, you're ready to acknowledge defeat, if you're not already lying on the floor in a pool of vomit. As anyone familiar with this publication will know, we're hardly in the business of covering Britney Spears here, and the idea that music always has to be trivial poppy fluff is about a million miles wide of the target, but, call me old fashioned, I like to find something in the music to enjoy, or at least respect, and with Ottavi's offering, it's hard. Elio Martusciello's Aesthetics Of The Machine last year on Bowindo explored similar avenues of extreme registers, but somehow came off as more musical. For Degradable Music is another example of a project where the realisation of the concept is nowhere near as interesting as the concept itself.—DW

Important Imprec 029
ANP was originally formed in 1984 by Japanese noisician Kazuyuki K. Null (of Zeni Geva fame, though ANP predates that hardcore combo by three years) and ex-Fushitsusha percussionist Seijiro Murayama. After releasing two cassettes and five LPs the two went their separate ways back in 1987 but have recently hooked up again, and the music on this disc, their first American release (at last), comes from concerts the pair recorded in Tokyo and the noise capital of the world, Osaka, in February and December 2003. With the exception of the closing 21'41" track, all the pieces are relatively short, which gives the affair something of the feel of a sampler, and a very listenable one to boot. From the point of view of music technology, the world's moved on considerably since the mid 80s, and Null's arsenal of electronic equipment certainly sounds more sophisticated, even elegant in comparison with the raw early ANP stuff. Onstage, KK's always been the suave debonair gent of Japanoise, especially compared to the likes of Jojo and Masonna, and Murayama's drumming is decidedly painterly compared to the blood and guts of a Weasel Walter. That said, this is not exactly something you want to play to your granny over afternoon tea, unless you've got plans to collect on the life insurance.—DW

Max Eastley & David Toop
Bip Hop Bleep 25
Important figures though they are among improvising musicians, instrument builders (Max Eastley) and shrewd commentators on the scene (David Toop), Doll Creature is only the third collaborative album between these two good friends in thirty years. Their last outing was 1994's Buried Dreams, and the one before that was New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments (1975) on Brian Eno's mythic Obscure label ('bout time all of those were properly reissued, as I still can't remember who I lent my copy of the Toop / Eastley to, though I do know I never got it back). Doll Creature features Toop on "computer, guitars, flutes, tubes, organic matter, book pages, dog whistles and percussives" and Eastley on "mechanical and whirling instruments, sculptures, bowed Arc, percussives, abrasives, Purple Ray Vitalator, insectoids, weather, computer", and its fifteen tracks come accompanied by a typically evocative swathe of Toop's Exotica-style Conrad-obsessed humid tropical rainforest prose. Tracks like "Eyelash turned inwards" inhabit the same spooky war torn jungle Martin Sheen and his crew sailed into, a landscape of sudden near-fatal surprises, undergrowth rustling with venomous snakes, while "Cardiomancy" is nudged forward into the darkness by an inscrutable didgeridoo drone that could be part of some native shamanic ceremony, as could the ritual rubbing and clacking of stones on "Nights, demixed, circles" (played one supposes by Toop, whose admiration for Akio Suzuki's performances with pebbles is well known). There's a constant sense of foreboding to it all, a hidden danger in the distance and depth of the mix – something by the way that was sadly lacking in Toop's recent Confront release Breath Taking with Suzuki. It's exquisitely recorded and mixed, thoroughly riveting stuff, though I imagine someone will describe it all as Dark Ambient. Not too sure about that "ambient" bit, though; we all know the story by now of how St Brian "discovered" ambient music while lying ill in bed when a visiting friend put on a record of harp music with the volume down a tad too low and Eno just couldn't bring himself to move his butt out of bed far enough to turn up the wick. I'll bet he could have made it to the stereo all right if Doll Creature had been playing.—DW

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Copyright 2004 by Paris Transatlantic