MARCH News 2005 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Nate Dorward, Stephen Griffith, Nicholas Rice, Massimo Ricci, Wayne Spencer and Dan Warburton:

Editorial: Interview with JOHN DUNCAN
Présences 2005: Marc-André Dalbavie
Sons d'Hiver:
Resonance / Billy Bang
Archives GRM
On Absurd:
Ashtray Navigations / Howlin' Ghost Proletarians / Stern, Garcia & Guerra / Davis & Halliwell / Looper / Klimperei
On Atak:
Kim Cascone Jason Kahn & Steinbrüchel / Goem / Keiichiro Shibuya
On Family Vineyard: O-Type / Cold Bleak Heat / Tigersmilk
Patty Waters / Less of Five / Joe Giardullo / Cosmosamatics / David Borgo / Achim Kaufmann / Pandelis Karayorgis / Territory Band / Gold Sparkle Trio + Ken Vandermark / Triage
Michael Renkel & Luca Venitucci / Bertrand Gauguet / Scotch of St James / Fred Frith & John Zorn / Chris Brown
Pierre Boulez / John Cage / Giacinto Scelsi / Tod Dockstader & David Lee Myers / Simon H. Fell
Stephan Mathieu / Darren Tate / Andrea Ermke / Iovae / Janek Schaefer & Philip Jeck
Last month


A warm welcome this month to Massimo Ricci – and check out his webzine Touching Extremes when you have a moment – who comes bearing gifts, in the form of an exclusive interview with John Duncan (whose own website is a treasure trove of information too) and the following introduction.
" John Duncan was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1953; after studying with Allan Kaprow at the California Institute of the Arts, he started performing concerts and "events" that were more or less his own studies and reactions about human behaviour in its more intense and often cruel forms. These performances could include ringing one's door and shooting him in the face with a blank gun (Scare), projecting a hard-core movie collage to an all-female audience and making himself available for sexual abuse after the show (For Women Only) , locking himself with more participants, naked and blind, in a cellar space (Maze) and - maybe the hardest for audiences to swallow - getting himself a vasectomy after a performance with a corpse (Blind Date, which of course has been violently attacked from everywhere). For Duncan, a great deal of influence on all this was found in his study of Viennese Actionism movement (Hermann Nitsch and the late Rudolf Schwarzkogler were probably the most famous artists coming from that area). Actionism - as you will read - is not at the basis of his work anymore today. Duncan is the author of a series of interesting videos, too; apart from the pretty well known John See Series, adult films directed by him and for which he composed the score, from 1986 to 1988 he was able to override the signal of Japanese NHK TV with a portable transmitter video set, broadcasting his own pirate images. Some of this material has been released in VHS (see his website - - for more information on this and all his activities). His musical output is variegated, strikingly intense and beautiful to the point of stomach vibration; Duncan has collaborated among others with Merzbow, CM Von Hausswolff, Christoph Heemann (Incoming- Streamline 1995), Andrew McKenzie (Contact - Touch 1990), Bernhard Günter (Home, Unspeakable - Trente Oiseaux 1996), Elliott Sharp (Tongue - Allquestions 2004), Asmus Tietchens (Da Sich Die Machtgier...- Die Stadt 2003); he has composed music using the buzz emitted by the microwave drivers in the Stanford Linear Accelerator tunnel (The Crackling - Trente Oiseaux 1996, with Max Springer). His strict relationship with photographer and mathematician Giuliana Stefani has been going on for many years and Stefani's photos grace the covers of all of John's recent releases on their own label, Allquestions. Most of his last decade's CDs deal with installation soundtracks (The Keening Towers - Allquestions 2003 - being his masterpiece), remodelling of human voice (his works with Sharp, Tietchens, Peter Fleur and Edvard Graham Lewis) and other sources and morphing of shortwave radio (Tap Internal - Touch 2000, Palace Of Mind - Allquestions 2001, Phantom Broadcast - Allquestions 2003), of which the American is probably the most gifted assembler existing: his music, after the raging distortions and the sudden cries of the beginnings, has developed to become a shifting tide of impressive drones, violent buzzing, subterranean hisses and explorations of silence. But no word of mine can do justice to this artist's enormous impact on modern art in general; therefore, it's about time someone gives him his virtual plaque in the hall of fame of most important innovators of our time." Now read on.. et bonne lecture.—DW

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Présences 2005
Marc-André Dalbavie / L'Itinéraire, Feb. 1st 2005
The 15th annual Présences festival of concerts of contemporary music organised by Radio France (all totally free – hooray!) took place at the Maison de Radio on the banks of the Seine between January 29th and February 13th. The festival is loosely organised around several themes, the most prominent of which is a featured composer – this year Marc-André Dalbavie. Born in 1961, Dalbavie's music is usually thrown in the musique spectrale bag along with Grisey and Murail, which is rather misleading for two reasons: firstly, Dalbavie is a good 15 years younger than the pair of them, and hence belongs to a different generation (he also studied with Franco Donatoni – hardly a spectralist – and it shows), and secondly he's openly admirative of American minimalism. In an interview with Christian Wasselin included in the handsome festival programme, he recalls with a smile how Pierre Boulez once asked him how he could possibly be interested in "such music", referring to Steve Reich.

The concert of Dalbavie chamber works on February 1st, in which the dapper-looking composer conducted the Ensemble L'Itinéraire (on magnificent form, as ever), revealed a few distinctive traces of Reich, but considerably more European influences, notably Ligeti. Opening with 1994's "In Advance of the Broken Time" – the title is an allusion to Duchamp's readymades but the music certainly isn't – for flute, clarinet, piano and string trio, Dalbavie's obvious affection for Ligeti soon made itself felt, the bright flurries of activity often recalling the older composer's "Chamber Concerto". Dalbavie often uses the piano to double the other instruments, normally a sign of weak orchestration but here an added sprinkle of clarity and glitter. The opening minute's patient exploration of a whole tone trill still sounds daring, as listeners hold their breath (the tension in the hall was palpable), wondering how long the composer is going to let it go on for. The ending of the piece is just as magical.

Written two years later, "Tactus" reveals another Ligeti touch – and one that Dalbavie has very much made his own – what one might call the "black hole effect", where the music is suddenly and inexorably attracted to one particular pitch, accelerating and compressing small repeated cycles until the target note is reached with a heroic clang. This gesture reappears with almost annoying regularity throughout the piece's four movements, the first of which also nods at Messiaen's Modes of Limited Transposition and mid-period Xenakis's fascination with irregular scale structures (in fact, it sounds very much like Xenakis circa 1980 written by Messiaen circa 1950). The programme notes mention Schubert's Octet (same instrumentation, plus piano), but the motoric chug-a-lug of Stravinsky's is closer to hand. There's also a distinct whiff of Berg's "Lyric Suite" at the opening of the third movement. For sure, Grisey and Murail aren't far off, but Dalbavie adopts a very pragmatic attitude towards spectralism, taking the sonorities he needs as and when, and leaving the rest of the dogma behind.

"Palimpseste" (hard to resist a comparison with Xenakis's work of the same name, but I will) was written in 2002 and revised last year. Inspired apparently by an unfinished novel by E.T.A. Hoffman about the unintentional interweaving of two different narratives, it finds Dalbavie drifting off in the direction of the siren song of postmodernism, not only in its incorporation of a quote from Gesualdo's "Beltà, poi che t'assenti" but in its oddly episodic structure. There are indeed clear traces of minimalism, but the passages of running semiquavers recall Vivaldi as much as they do Reich. Written for the same ensemble as "In Advance of the Broken Time", the work is beautifully scored (though the pianist's occasional forays inside his instrument to play its strings zither style don't add up to much), but it comes across somehow as more diffuse and less satisfying than the earlier work.

If "Palimpseste" sowed a few seeds of doubt, the "Sextine Cyclus" that ended the concert provoked mild panic, and even a few sheepish boos from the otherwise well-heeled and politely ageing audience. Not so much postmodern as pre-Renaissance, this cycle of ten songs originally written – in part at least – by 13th century troubadours, trouvères and Minnesänger, and scored for soprano (Virginie Pesch) and 10 piece ensemble (including electric keyboards, gongs – both used so sparingly one wonders why he bothered – and harp – as desperately twee as you could imagine) seriously tries the patience. In terms of songs with instrumental accompaniment, Debussy and especially Ravel can't have been too far away from Dalbavie's thoughts, but trapped in the excruciatingly bland white note world of medieval modes, it all comes out sounding like Arvo Pärt, without the mysticism – the mysticism being the only thing that saves Pärt's music in the first place. One imagines that even Papa Boulez, if faced with a stark choice between this and "Music for 18 Musicians", would swallow hard and plump for Steve Reich.—DW

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Sons d'Hiver
Resonance (Rob Brown / Henry Grimes / William Parker)
Billy Bang's Aftermath Band
Théâtre Jean Vilar, Vitry-sur-Seine Feb. 5th 2005
For a few years now the Sons d'Hiver Festival has played host to a scaled-down version of William Parker's Vision Festival, inviting some of the big names of what used to be called free jazz – I'm beginning to wonder if the term has any meaning anymore – to play to deliriously appreciative audiences in packed houses in the dreary suburbs of the Val-de-Marne department Southeast of Paris. Festival curator Fabien Barontini is evidently keen to give his punters value for money, and has taken to programming three bands in the same evening. However, when the musicians concerned have egos – perhaps "personalities" would be a more diplomatic way of putting it – as big as their discographies, you can be sure that they're not going to oblige the management by playing a straight 45-minute set and clearing off. The result in the case of the concert in Vitry was that by the time the second band that evening had finished, it was already 11.15pm and your roving reporter had to return home through drunken and dangerous midnight traffic to pay the babysitter, moaning all the while about having to miss the real reason for his going all the bloody way to Vitry-sur-Seine, the Revolutionary Ensemble – Leroy Jenkins, Sirone and Jerome Cooper. Anyway, I didn't pay for my ticket, so I shouldn't complain, right?

Things had got underway promptly enough at 8.40 (only ten minutes after the scheduled 8.30 kick off – practically unheard of here in France, where people think nothing of shambling in up to twenty minutes late), when alto saxophonist Rob Brown walked calmly out on stage, joined by arguably the two most influential free jazz bassists of them all, Henry Grimes (photo, left), back with a vengeance after having disappeared without trace for over three decades, and William Parker, who, if he were to go AWOL himself, would be as sorely missed as Grimes has been all these years. Grimes, sporting a tie that must have been going out of fashion back when he dropped off the radar and a lapel badge as big as a pie plate (looked from where we were sitting like a photo of Albert Ayler, but don't quote me on that), was surprisingly agile, running up and down the fingerboard of his enormous bass, alternating bowed and plucked passages with seemingly limitless energy. His non-stop flow of ideas inspired Parker to turn in the best and most passionate arco solo I've ever heard him play, while Brown stood, head bowed in reverence, smiling from time to time as he wondered how he would ever get the two giants flanking him to stop. Not that he was squeezed out – far from it. His four extended solos during the hour-long set were clear proof that he is, with the possible exception of Marco Eneidi, the most technically accomplished and inventive altoist since Jimmy Lyons. Even so, bass fatigue (for this listener) set in after about three quarters of an hour. While Parker and Brown were following each other's moves closely, Grimes was unstoppable, so much so that I began to wonder if he was actually listening all that closely to what the other two cats were doing. What needed to be said had been said after about 45 minutes, but another quarter of an hour went by before the set finished – not surprisingly Grimes was the last to stop playing.

I do wish The Revolutionary Ensemble had gone on second and left the Billy Bang band to round off the evening, not only because I ended up having to miss their set but because Bang's outfit was definitely the most accessible group on the bill. What he didn't seem to understand though is that one can be accessible through the music alone, without having to resort to cheap theatrics and witty repartee. Billed as "Vietnam II – Billy Bang's The Aftermath Band Performing Music From The Vietnam Trilogy", and featuring violinist Bang (photo, left - thanks to Nicolas Perrier), aka Sgt. E5 William Walker US 51613087 (I kid you not, this was printed on the programme), James Spaulding on alto sax and flute, Ted Daniel (Spec.4th Class RA 5169091) on trumpet, Andrew Bemkey on piano, Todd Nicholson on bass, Michael Carvin (Spec.4th Class RA 64101864) on drums and two Vietnamese musicians, Co Boi Nguyen and Nhan Thanh Ngo, what we got was a selection of tracks from the Aftermath album – the only instalment of the trilogy so far, to the best of my knowledge – driven forward with the style, elegance and finesse of a dirty great Mack truck by one of the stodgiest rhythm sections known to man. The fault lay neither with the bassist nor with the pianist (since it was abundantly clear that they were both just obeying orders, i.e. following Sgt Walker's conducted instructions) but with Carvin, who has to be not only the loudest drummer on the planet – and coming from someone who's seen Han Bennink outgun The Ex that's saying something – but also the least subtle. Subtlety never was the name of the game with Bang, though, a fact borne out by the facile exoticism of his primitive pentatonic themes and his own histrionic solos (I solemnly swear I'll never ever take the piss out of Didier Lockwood again, OK? – unless he wears those fucking leather trousers), which have always sounded far more technically impressive than they actually are. Put enough rosin on your bow and cavort around and Joe and Josie Public will be blown away by the white cloud of dust swirling around you (I am not pulling your leg here, there were people having orgasms listening to this stuff). As for the Vietnamese, who Bang says he "met in New York" (he didn't supply the name of the restaurant), Nhan Thanh Ngo could hardly tune let alone play the dan tranh, and Co Boi Nguyen couldn't sing her way out of a paper bag, though she was much nicer to look at than Sgt Bang strutting his stuff and waggling his ass in front of his horn players while they turned in par-for-the-course solos, at times impressive but never inspired.—DW

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Archives GRM
Various Artists
INA C 1030 5xCD
To celebrate its 30th Anniversary, the French Institut National de l'Audiovisuel has produced this handsome set of five colour-coded CDs and an 80-page album compiling over a hundred photographs documenting the electronic music produced under the auspices of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, including several seminal works that predate its creation in 1958 (the GRM was absorbed into the INA in 1975 after the break-up of the old ORTF). Each volume comes with an informative background essay written by an important player on the scene – François Bayle, Régis Renouard Larivière, Yann Geslin, Daniel Teruggi and Christian Zanési – though readers should be aware that the English translations are not always accurate, and on several occasions are actually misleading.

The first disc, entitled "Les visiteurs de la musique concrète", opens with André Hodeir's "Jazz et jazz" (1951), a lively if somewhat primitive montage of fragments of big band brass with a bop rhythm section. It's an odd way to begin the retrospective, perhaps, as it's the only explicitly "jazzy" piece in the whole set, but kicking off with something as deadly as the two po-faced Boulez "Etudes" (also 1951) that follow it would have been unwise to say the least. Hodeir was just as enthusiastic about Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie as he was about the music of Jean Barraqué, the unjustly neglected figure of French post-war serialism who died in 1973 aged 45, but one wonders if Hodeir thrilled in quite the same way to Barraqué's "Etude" (1951 – 54). Roughly contemporary with his "Séquence", a forgotten masterpiece of modern music if ever there was one, Barraqué's "Etude" explores the same territory, trying to reclaim for the Darmstadt generation the dramatic sweep and direct appeal to the emotions of Romanticism, without in any way compromising the severe structural discipline of the new music. The contrast with the arid Boulez "Etudes" is striking. Darius Milhaud (1892 – 1974) isn't normally associated with the cutting edge of the post-war avant-garde (though it's worth bearing in mind his teaching at Mills College was enormously influential on younger composers of note, including Steve Reich), so coming across his "La rivière endormie", a brief radio hörspiel dating from 1954, is a wonderful surprise. Milhaud's interest in electronics was admittedly limited to rather simplistic mixing and reverb effects, but despite its rather boxy sound and period wobbly saxophone vibrato, the work's lyricism is still fresh and satisfying. Roman Haubenstock-Ramati's "L’amen de verre" (1957) is just as oneiric and evocative, but unlike Milhaud's tone poem makes use of the latest technology, notably the phonogène, a variable-speed tape recorder designed by Pierre Schaeffer and Jacques Poulin that allowed sounds, played forward or backward, to be easily transposed across a two octave register (a later version incorporated a keyboard, in what was essentially a primitive precursor of the sampler).

The GRM studio was in no way off limits to the older generation; Henri Sauguet (1901 – 89) was enthusiastic about its possibilities (though his "Aspect sentimental" (1957) clings to the safety net of ABA sonata form), as was, unsurprisingly Edgard Varèse, who worked there on the electronic "interpolations" for his "Déserts" (1954), the riotous world premiere of which, as François Bayle is right to remind us in his accompanying essay, was probably the last serious scandal in music history. The full brute force of "Désert: Interpolation 1" must have sounded as primitive and terrifying to the audience in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées as Stravinsky's "Sacre" had done 41 years earlier. Varèse subsequently toned down his three-minute masterpiece in the studios of Columbia University, but here we have the original in all its futurist industrial glory. While Varèse's "Déserts" and the later "Poème Electronique" are regarded as landmark works of electronic music, their incorporation of recognisable and emotionally charged sonic signifiers (organs, sirens, bells), though still undeniably powerful, sounds rather old-fashioned compared to the technical wizardry of some of the younger lions. André Boucourechliev's "Texte 2" (1959) is a veritable tour de force – one wonders how many hundreds of hours went into its creation – and the inscrutable crackling of Xenakis's "Concret PH" still sounds so outrageously contemporary you can almost smell the vine cuttings burning in the courtyard of the GRM studio on rue de l'Université. It's always a pleasure to return to "Concret PH", but the piece is well known enough to have appeared on numerous occasions. The real revelation of this first volume is Claude Ballif's "Points-Mouvements", a ten-minute masterpiece dating from 1962, and, unfortunately, the only electronic work ever created by Ballif (1924 – 2004). Its patient and beautifully-structured investigation of tiny sonorities, scrapes, rattles and rubbings of diverse materials, sounds more like the amplified textures of Mark Wastell or the microsonic investigations of Morphogenesis than early 60s musique concrète. After Ballif and Xenakis, the fifteen minutes of "Timbres Durées" (1952), Olivier Messiaen's only serious foray into the world of electronic music (with Pierre Henry as assistant), drag horribly. Messiaen's importance and influence as a teacher cannot be overestimated, however, so the inclusion of "Timbres Durées" is of considerable historical interest, if only as a glimpse down the path not taken.

On the second disc, entitled "L'art de l'étude", some of the more familiar GRM names make their first appearance, including François-Bernard Mâche, Ivo Malec, Luc Ferrari and of course Pierre Schaeffer, whose 1948 "Étude pathétique" opens the set. Also known as the "Etude aux casseroles", after one of its most recognisable sound sources, its oddball montage of coughs, wheezes, blues harmonica and snippets of Sacha Guitry sounds as wondrously strange now as it must have done at its premiere over half a century ago. Equally fresh is the trilogy of Ferrari studies from 1958, "Étude aux sons tendus", "Étude floue" "Étude aux accidents", the cymbalom-like sheen of Malec's "Reflets" (1961) and the thrilling brassy blasts of Mâche's 1959 "Prélude", all proof that a good pair of ears and a keen sense of structure and pacing stand the test of time better than the chilly serial dogma of Michel Philippot's "Étude n°1" (1952), which has aged as badly as the Boulez and Messiaen on Disc 1. The offerings from lesser-known figures are also impressive, from Philippe Arthuys' delightful "Boîte à musique" to the Etudes of Mireille Chamass-Kyrou and Akira Tamba, and "Mer d’Azov", by Beatriz Ferreyra, who worked closely with Schaeffer on his Solfège de l'Objet sonore.

By the end of the 1960s, changes were afoot, both in the streets of Paris and in the heated discussions behind the closed doors of the GRM itself. The ideological purity of Schaeffer's beloved solfège had to come to terms with the possible incorporation of electronic music into mixed media works involving dance, theatre and film. As the barricades went up the barriers between genres came down, and even members of Schaeffer's inner circle such as Bernard Parmegiani found themselves experimenting with collage (Parmegiani's "De pop à l'âne" and "Pop'eclectic" are not included here, having been recently reissued elsewhere) and the use of field recordings without disguising their origins. Alain Savouret's 1969 "Etude aux sons réalistes", though by no means the first example of this – that honour probably goes to Luc Ferrari's 1964 "Hétérozygote" – is a fine and representative example of the kind of sounds Schaeffer referred to as "mauvais concret".

The second disc closes with Savouret's "Étude numérique" (1985), which by rights belongs on the third, "Le son en nombres". This and volume 4, subtitled "Le temps du temps réel", document the music produced when the GRM took its first small steps into the digital world. In 1978 the Group moved into the fabled Studio 123 and acquired a DEC PDP 11/60 computer, which Yann Geslin describes in his informative accompanying essay as "modern and powerful" (though by today's standards 256K central memory and twice 16 minutes of sound autonomy at 34kHz seem positively prehistoric), and composers were soon queueing up to pore over 800-page Music V manuals. "One year later", Geslin writes, "the first sound was produced, just a weak grumble.." Geslin goes on to describe in entertaining detail the trials and tribulations that accompanied those early digital explorers, and, in an invaluable appendix (not translated into English, as it turns out) also provides a complete and fascinating inventory of the software available in Studio 123. Compared to today's ridiculously simple-to-use (though hard to master) packages like ProTools and SoundForge, the tools available at the end of the 1970s were cumbersome and time consuming.

In François Bayle's "Eros Bleu" (1979), the first work produced using the 123 software, you can hear the patience and hard work, but also the distinctive frosty sheen – fluide glaciale as Bayle called it – of early digital music. Gone are the reassuringly primitive thuds and plunks of prepared pianos and corrugated iron, the clang of kitchenware and the sighs of doors – in comes the poised metallic quivering of stretched and frozen time, a heavily filtered ring-modulated coldness just as present in the eternal glissandi of Jean-Claude Risset's "Sud" as in the calmer stretches of Denis Smalley's "Wind Chimes" (1987). In the hands of craftsmen such as Bayle, Risset and Francis Dhomont – whose genuinely thrilling and haunting "Novars" (1989) closes Disc 3 – such tools could create sensitive and impressive music, but the urge to "make it complex" clearly got the better of many of their contemporaries. One only has to compare the spare, often monophonic textures of the Etudes on Volume 2 of this collection to the sprawl and whoosh of Gilles Racot's "Anamorphées" or the precious tinklings of Bénédict Maillard's "Affleurements" (both 1985) to realise how chilly the music soon became. Ivo Malec's "Week-end" is a homage not to Walter Ruttmann (whose 1930 film of the same name was one of the pioneering masterpieces of electronic music) but to Wagner, a kind of oppressively digitised rewrite of the opening of the Ring. Adding human voices, either sung or spoken – cf. Dieter Kaufmann's "Voyage au Paradis", Yann Geslin's own "Variations didactiques" (that title says it all) and Jean Schwarz's "Quatre saisons (Hiver)" – only makes the electronics sound even more inhuman. Listening to Geslin's dismantling of a Mallarmé poem is like reading a circuit diagram; you might marvel at the ingenuity of the apparatus, and even admire the abstract beauty of the graphics, but eventually you'll reach for your copy of Pli Selon Pli.

Before long composers were getting rather fed up hanging about Studio 123 waiting for motorcycle couriers to bring back their precious snippets of sound; 1984 saw the installation of the first version of SYTER, which can stand either for "SYnthèse en TEmps Réel" or "SYstème TEmps Réel". Not, as one composer suspected, "SYstème TERuggi", though composer Daniel Teruggi (today head honcho at the GRM) was so involved and in love with the project he ended up writing his PhD thesis on it. As such he's the perfect person to write the notes to Volume 4 of this set. Much of the music on disc 4 not surprisingly belongs to the same shimmering soundworld of disc 3 – Bernard Parmegiani's "Exercisme 3", the sliced and diced vocal riddle of Ake Parmerud's "Les objets obscurs" and the Horacio Vaggione's "Ash", a truly great exploration of the immensely small, to paraphrase Teruggi – but one of the advantages of SYTER was that its real time transformations allowed composers to integrate live performers and traditional instruments into their work. Denis Dufour's "Pli de perversion", which as it happens was the first work to be completed on the system in 1984, uses two synthesizers (presumably the then ubiquitous DX7s) and one violin, while Alain Savouret's "La complainte du bossué" and Ramon Gonzales-Arroyo's "De la distance" both use the double bass. In Savouret's piece the bassist – Frédéric Stohl – also has to recite a text, and though his extraordinary virtuosity is to be applauded, the resulting catarrhal splattery poésie sonore isn't exactly attractive. Nor is Gilles Racot's earnestly avant-garde "Subgestuel", even with Les Percussions de Strasbourg along for the ride. It's exactly the kind of stuff Bob Ostertag complained about in his excellent "Why Computer Music Sucks" article a while back (originally in Resonance magazine, now online at "I would venture to say that the pieces created with today's cutting edge technology have an even greater uniformity of sound among them than the pieces done on MIDI modules available in any music store serving the popular music market. [..] The problem of greater technological power failing to produce more interesting timbral results would not be so central were it not for the fact discussed above that Computer Music has made timbral exploration its central concern. To put the matter in its bluntest form, it appears that the more technology is thrown at the problem, the more boring the results. People set out for new timbral horizons, get lost along the way in the writing of the code, the trouble-shooting of the systems, and the funding to make the whole thing possible, then fail to notice that the results do not justify the effort." Fortunately that can't be said of François Bayle's exquisite "Mimaméta", or the four movements extracted from Teruggi's "Instants d’hiver". Despite a clear affection – nay, deep love – for the SYTER system, Daniel Teruggi manages to keep one foot in the real world, incorporating fragments of speech and instrumental music (and a real sense of harmony) into the work without turning it into a hippy patchwork quilt. It's a shame the extract from Michel Redolfi's 1991 "Appel d’air" isn't a bit longer too.

The final disc is entitled "Le GRM sans le savoir", a cunning little pun that might be translated as "GRM without knowledge" or "GRM without knowing it", as in "bet you never realised that was done by the GRM." The best example of this, and perhaps the only piece of musique concrète ever to be heard by literally millions, probably even billions, of people is Bernard Parmegiani's "indicatif Roissy", the instantly recognisable (but infuriatingly impossible to remember, let alone sing or whistle) 4 second jingle that has been used to preface announcements over the PA system at Charles De Gaulle Airport since 1974. One wonders what kind of royalty deal Parmegiani signed, for this and the two other jingles included here. The disc also includes jingles ("sonals") by Jean Schwarz for Radio France Culture and Christian Zanési for RATP, another four-second doodle that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever ridden the Métro. Other oddities – the French adjective "insolite" is most appropriate here – include François Bayle's 1970 explorations with the voices of Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, extracted from Chapter 3 of Bayle's "L'expérience acoustique", Savouret's deliciously Ravel-inflected "Valse molle" (commissioned, amazingly, by ORTF's Light Music Service), Jean Schwarz's gloomily repetitive ballet music for Carolyn Carson "Il était une fois", Guy Reibel's decidedly minimalist "Canon sur une trompe africaine" and a five-movement suite extracted from Robert Cohen-Solal's incidental music to the cult TV series "Les Shadoks", a timely and wonderful reminder that some of the more daring innovations in electronic music at the time on both sides of the English Channel were used in children's programmes. Michel Portal's bass clarinet is given a thorough going over by Jean Schwarz in "Chantakoa" (1986), and there are even two bona fide chansons, Boris Vian's "L'alcool tue" (1962) and Edgardo Canton's "Rengaine à pleurer" (1967), though you'll never have heard them like this. Parmegiani turns the Vian into a cartoon cutup worthy of John Zorn, while Canton's montage of the gentle melancholy of Mouloudji's voice with frosty drones is arresting and haunting.

Though the final disc of the set actually ends with Zanési's abovementioned jingle for the RATP, the last substantial piece is the one that precedes it, Parmegiani's "La roue Ferris" (1971). It's a great way to go out on a high, if you'll forgive the pun. His ear for detail has never been more evident than in this eleven-minute meticulous masterpiece. One imagines that Parmegiani and the other composers who worked late into the night, night after night in the GRM studios to create a mere ten-second flurry of pure perfection must be amused, maybe even mildly horrified and not a little jealous to see the likes of Christian Fennesz surf an Endless Summer tsunami with a petulant click of a mouse. It's fair to say though that without the pioneering work of institutions like the GRM and the tireless energy of the composers and technicians involved, today's electronic music would not be what it is – and Archives GRM provides an excellent overview of a fertile and influential period in twentieth century music history.—DW

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On Absurd
Ashtray Navigations
Absurd 42 / Goldsoundz 21

Howlin' Ghost Proletarians
Absurd 49 / Ulan Titel 2

Joel Stern / Margarida Garcia / Anthony Guerra
Absurd 39 3"CD

Matt Davis / Graham Halliwell
Absurd 47

Absurd 45 / Ulan Titel 1

Absurd 50 / Eclipsis 01
I've probably said it before, but the very idea of reviewing discs on Nicolas Malevitsis's CD/CDR label Absurd is probably, well.. absurd. Released in ridiculously limited editions – anything more than 200 is exceptional – they tend to disappear at alarming speed. One day, though, someone's going to have a field day reissuing some of these outstanding recordings (said that before too) covering every area of work that a normal, healthy new music addict might possibly be interested in, from eardrum throbbing noise to ultra-minimal improv, spaced-out psychedelic stoner rock to intricate and delicate musique concrète. This latest batch of Absurds is typically diverse, and once again uniformly excellent in quality.

Unless you've been following the Leeds scene closely you might not have come across the work of Phil Todd before. Going under the moniker of Ashtray Navigations – and I think it's fair to assume that it's not an ordinary Marlboro smoking away in there – Todd has released a sizeable amount of psych wah drone on swiftly deleted vinyl editions and CDRs. To your fucking feather'd wings, however, is a "real" CD, co-produced by Absurd and Gold Soundz, and might therefore be easier to get hold of than other Todd releases. Consisting of three pieces, "Fried Stars", "The Sweet Salamander" and the epic 46-minute title track, this is strongly recommended to anyone who's already lost their way in the JOMF archives, the various incarnations of Godspeed and Vibracathedral, not to mention Bruce Russell's various projects. Todd's basic working method is quite straightforward: lay down a drone and then pile things on top of it, anything from noodling keyboards to percussion to lo-fi electronics. Of course, just about anyone can do this, but putting together a coherent and engrossing piece of music lasting over three quarters of an hour needs some doing: Todd has a sure sense of pace and a good pair of ears. Perhaps those who have attained a chemically induced higher state of awareness respond to it differently, but you don't need to be stoned immaculate to appreciate good solid craftsmanship.

Metz-based Michel Henritzi is known for his work running the A Bruit Secret label (soon to be mothballed, sad to report), his splendid writing on music in Revue & Corrigé, and the exhilarating noise he produces with an old mange-disque (portable record player) in the Dust Breeders. But he's no mean guitarist either, and nor is his pardner in the Howlin' Ghost Proletarians, Fabrice Eglin, whose work has already been released on A Bruit Secret. The eight tracks that make up Dead Roads are magnificent proof that you don't have to hail from the other side of the pond to play the blues – meaning the raw dirty Howlin' Wolf blues as well as the melancholy post-Fahey / Mazzacane blues. Unlike many exercises in the genre, including unfortunately quite a few by Mazzacane himself, Dead Roads never loses itself in inconsequential noodling; events unfold at a leisurely pace, but there's a current of latent tension, even menace to it all, a glint of knife blade in Henritzi's lapsteel. Even the snatch of Peggy Lee's "Johnny Guitar" that drifts in sounds somehow sinister. Patrick Boeuf's drawing of Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter is the perfect image to accompany it all. A real gem of an album, and one you should go out of your way to find a copy of at the earliest opportunity.

Though many of Malevitsis's releases come in creative and beautiful packaging, notably the circular foldout editions (the Looper and Klimperei productions being the latest example here), he sometimes makes no bones about the fact that most Absurd productions are CDRs. The three incher Hey Ya comes attached to a photograph of what could be somebody's outside toilet (well, it's certainly some kind of outhouse or shed) in what must be one of the most homemade of homemade releases you're ever likely to have come across. Don't be put off, though: this 20-minute slab of improv recorded in Lisbon in December 2002 and featuring bassist Margarida Garcia and visiting Aussies Anthony Guerra (guitar and electronics) and Joel Stern (feedback, microphones and electronics) is well worth hunting down. For some reason my disc displays the title "3 Sarabandes #3" when inserted into the computer, but the music it contains is about as far away from stately courtly dance as you can possibly get. Not too dissimilar from Phil Todd's work, in fact, the first half of the piece features a stable middle A which the musicians progressively destabilise with angry friction. The drone returns towards the end – a bowed low G this time (Garcia, I assume) – but Stern and Guerra won't let it go.

Slightly similar in feel but much less abrasive is Old School House, featuring the trumpet and field recordings of Matt Davis and the saxophone feedback of Graham Halliwell (whose old school house in Norwich this was recorded in back in April 2003). Having more or less ignored Hallliwell's contributions to the recent offering from +minus, in which he plays with Mark Wastell and Bernhard Günter (and having been roundly scolded for so doing), maybe I should set the record straight by saying that I find this outing with Davis, and Halliwell's earlier duo release on Absurd (Faktura, Absurd 34), far more satisfying than either of the available +minus albums. The delicate nuances of Halliwell's feedback are more easily appreciated here than they were on A Rainy Koran Verse, where they were partially submerged in the luscious harmonies of Günter's cellotar and Wastell's Nepalese bowls. Instead, Davis's discreet field recordings and occasional subterranean brassy gurgles counterpoint Halliwell's work to perfection. Compared to the ultra minimal stuff these two were putting out about three years ago – 2001, in retrospect, may well be remembered as the year lowercase improv peaked (and that's certainly the wrong word: troughed maybe) – the second track is almost opulent, using a wide range of sounds to great effect while retaining the characteristically sedate pace. The final piece is a more austere affair, Halliwell's sustained pitches taking their time to emerge from a cloud of breathy hiss.

Cellist Nikos Veliotis is no stranger to the world of Absurd, having already released two albums on the label. Looper is a trio also featuring Martin Küchen on saxophone and Ingar Zach on percussion, and the two extended tracks on Squarehorse (lasting respectively 23'31" and 37'57") represent the group's released output to date. But not for long, one imagines. Veliotis has been increasingly active lately, refining his technique with the BACHbow, a bow specially designed and built by cellist Michael Bach that allows the performer to play comfortably on three or even four strings at a time, gradually refining a music that alternates long, rich chordal drones and stretches of pregnant silence. Anyone familiar with his solo Radial on Confront will recognise the cellist at once. Don't let the clinical white cover fool you, either: adding Zach's elegant percussion (occasional shades of Eddie Prévost and Burkhard Beins) and Küchen's sustained tones (nice to hear he's as good at holding notes as he is flying off them in all directions) adds colour and depth throughout. The music shimmers like Veliotis's own video art, which it often accompanies: superimposed icons gently rippling in and out of synch. Exquisite.

Also in the "classic" Absurd circular foldout cover, this time in a tasty shade of hot pink, comes La Tordeuse à Bandes Obliques (I'm not going make any attempts at translating the title if that's OK with you), the latest offering from the quintessentially underground and decidedly potty world of Klimperei. Essentially the brainchild of Christophe Petchanatz (along with Los Paranos, Al and Del, Deleted, Lapin Gris and Totentanz and goodness knows how many other outfits), the group has been steadily amassing a huge archive of deliciously naïve mini-compositions for piano, winds and lo-fi electronics, to which can be added 28 more here. If you have a soft spot for the loopier end of English Experimentalism (John White, Howard Skempton, Christopher Hobbs, Penguin Café Orchestra..), or the crankier corners of RIO (Pascal Comelade, ZNR..), you'll be as happy with this as little Maria Amaryllis, for whose first birthday the album has been released to celebrate. Behind all the above names of course stands Satie, so it's no surprise to find a couple of decidedly oblique – twisted, more like – references to Le Maître d'Arcueil herein, notably "Les Dominos", which revamps one of the well-worn "Gymnopédies" into something that would make even the late great Les Dawson's toes curl up. Even better is "Vive le Vent", which will have you reaching for the tinsel and crackers in no time. Fewer than 300 shopping days left to Christmas, kids – get buying right now.—DW

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On Atak
Kim Cascone / Jason Kahn / Steinbrüchel
ATAK 004
ATAK 005
Keiichiro Shibuya
ATAK 000
Face it, kids, going to see a concert of DSP or EAI or whatever you want to call the music people make with laptops these days is something of a contradiction in terms, as there's usually hardly anything to look it, unless watching Phil Durrant's index finger wiggle or Christian Fennesz drag nonchalantly on a cigarette is your idea of performance art. Legends even circulate in the Zone about musicians who load up ProTools, hit PLAY and then spend the rest of the gig replying to email (in my view not as scandalous as it seems: there are after all plenty of fine musicians – bernhard günter and Asmus Tietchens come to mind – whose concerts consist of merely playing pre-recorded CDs), which might explain why many shows include some groovy live video art by the likes of Billy Roisz, Tina Frank or Jeremy Bernstein (to name but three), presumably to distract the viewers' attention. Sure, it's there to showcase the creativity of the video artists too, but one suspects that if the musicians themselves were doing anything actually worth watching there'd be no need for it at all.
Similarly, some of the labels specialising in laptop music and EAI are well-known for their high quality graphics (think Fällt, Mego, Erstwhile, Cut..), but others prefer to keep packaging down to a minimum, as an aesthetic statement in keeping with the music itself (the transparent slimline jewel boxes of Francisco López's early releases, or the various incarnations of the Raster Noton family..). The Japanese ATAK label, distributed by Digital Narcis, belongs to the latter category (there are some interesting discussions on the design aspect of the label to be found at ATAKs 004 and 005 come in plain white cardboard sleeves with the word ATAK braille-like in the corner, while the Keiichiro Shibuya release is an all white affair – shades of Meme or A Bruit Secret, except this one's a digipak with a cool, slightly sticky plastic finish.
After releases on Mego, Fällt, Mutek and 12k, not to mention their own Audio NL imprint, Goem (normally a trio consisting of Frans de Waard, Roel Meelkop – both of Kapotte Muziek fame – and Peter Duimelinks, but here a de Waard solo project) turn in the most varied of these three releases, eleven tracks of well-crafted electronica ranging from quintessentially inscrutable clicks and rumbles to precision-tooled chilled funk, from cool cascading Eno-like arpeggios to cheap tinny lo-fi dub. Far from being a stylistic hotchpotch though, it's a convincing and enjoyable tour through many of contemporary electronica's fertile landscapes, and perfectly in keeping with de Waard's own catholic tastes in new music.
Meanwhile, in Switzerland, there's a clutch of laptoppers who are quite happy turning out predominantly static soundscapes whose bell-like resonances hover in luminous clouds of gently clicking and crackling digital dust – notably Jason Kahn and Ralph Steinbrüchel, who prefers to go by his surname alone (sorry for blowing the gaff, mate). Both have been particularly prolific of late – look out for Steinbrüchel's superb duo with Günter Müller just out on Hervé Boghossian's List imprint – though that could just be my reading of the vagaries of the release schedule, since the eleven tracks that make up their ATAK collaboration with that other frequent flier across the digital diaspora, Kim Cascone, were recorded in Zürich back in November 2003. All three musicians subsequently reworked and processed the material into finished tracks: Cascone contributed two, Kahn three and Steinbrüchel the remaining six. I don't know how any of them would feel about being compared to Papa Eno, but there's a distinctly ambient feel to it all (and that isn't a dirty word in my book): listen intently and there's a wealth of detail to appreciate, but the music works just as well if you let it float along in the background.
That certainly can't be said of Keiichiro Shibuya's work on this, his third outing on his own label (after ATAKs 001 with Slipped Disc and 002 with Yuji Takahashi). Most of 000 – no I don't understand either why 000 comes after 005 but never mind – will have your feet tapping, even if it's not exactly the kind of stuff that will fill the dance floor of the local disco. There's no info as such on the package, but if you pop it in your computer the disc does display some rather charming track titles, including "Sorry My Bad English", "Nagasaki Nightmare" and "Godzilla Blues" (yeah, well..). The first of these turns out to be a kind of click'n'cut version of Aphex Twin's Didgeridoo. Shibuya favours the hard edged precision-edited blip and buzz of Ryoji Ikeda, which makes occasional splashes of colour like the piano on "Guinness Book Of Records" (?) all the more welcome. It doesn't look very friendly, and it doesn't always sound friendly, but it's an impressive and convincing piece of work on a label to watch. I wonder what the live shows look like…—DW

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On Family Vineyard
Family Vineyard FV 31
I'm always a bit suspicious of that word "classic", whether it's used to sell overpriced menswear or overhyped Chicago jazz, but as the word "western" too is open to a number of possible interpretations – the John Wayne variety being the one that most readily springs to mind on listening to this music – we'll let it pass. This latest offering from O-Type (guitarists Bruce Anderson and Jim Hrabetin, percussionists Mark Weinstein and Dave Mahoney and the electronics and post-prod of Dale Sophiea) is a real road movie of an album, so much so that its seven tracks are named after films, some of them arguably classics too (though only two are westerns as such): "The Searchers", "The Manchurian Candidate", "3 Faces of Eve", "Point Blank" (I take it that's the 1967 John Boorman thriller with Lee Marvin and not the fucking awful thing from 1997 with Mickey Rourke), "Mean Streets", "Out of the Past" (the 1947 Jacques Tourneur, I trust) and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller". Come to think of it, "Bad Day at Black Rock" would have been just as appropriate, and so would "Touch of Evil", as O-Type's music is as sinister as the one-armed Spencer Tracy and as imposing as Welles' Hank Quinlan, not to mention as sweaty and seedy as what he gets up to. Dense and grimy as a congested rush hour expressway snaking round some grey, humid Midwestern city, it's like a cross between Neu! and Ennio Morricone recorded by Ribot and Quine back at Ikue Mori's Painted Desert session, rearranged by Craig Armstrong with a hangover, played by a pickup band in the Lee Van Cleef Steak Experience, Columbus Ohio and recorded on a portable DAT machine through a hole in the wall of the Mens' Room. I wouldn't go searching for precise correspondences between individual pieces and their titles – there's nothing particularly cowboyish about the first and last tracks, for example, other than a distinct whiff of Morricone (but that permeates the whole album) – in fact, I wouldn't go searching for anything: this music works best out on the road (honest, injun). If listened to too closely one soon tires of its linearity (I'm tempted to say lack of structure, but that's par for the course with today's post-rock, and in any case you could probably say the same of a lot of Neu!) and its rather sludgy arrangements. But out there on a rainy night in the suburbs of that wretched town you drove into without even realising it, I can imagine nothing better.
Cold Bleak Heat
Family Vineyard FV35

The splendidly named Cold Bleak Heat is in fact a free jazz quartet – the word supergroup might not be inappropriate – consisting of Paul Flaherty (alto and tenor saxophones), Greg Kelley (trumpet), Matt Heyner (bass) and Chris Corsano (drums). Readers of these pages will be familiar with Flaherty and Corsano's scorching duo release on Ecstatic Yod, The Hated Music, as well as Sannyasi, on which they were joined by Kelley, who of course had already appeared on 2000's Boxholder release, The Ilya Tree. With the addition of NNCK's Matt Heyner on bass, it's tempting to compare It's Magnificent, But It Isn't War to that earlier album, which featured the rhythm section of John Voigt and Laurence Cook. For musicality there's little to choose between them (both are outstanding), but if you were taking bets on pure stamina, you'd have to put your money on the younger team of Heyner and Corsano. Heyner is in his element when digging into a juicy drone – the difference between NNCK and other spacey post-rock drifters like Godspeed and JOMF is that the drones come out and grab you by the balls rather than float over you like clouds – and with Corsano's ultra-precise rapid fire stick work (proof that high energy and extreme subtlety can go hand in hand) paints a thrilling backdrop for the horn players to dance in front of. Dance they do, too; a lot of free jazz (actually I'm not sure whether these chaps would approve of the term.. hell, maybe they'd just call it improvisation) is real Boys Own swashbuckling walk the plank go ahead punk make my day eat shit motherfucker mah dick's bigger than yuzz sperm and sweat sprayed out over audiences of middle aged men trying desperately to cover up mysterious hardons under shabby overcoats in concert halls that end up smelling like porno booths, but for all its force and momentum there's a lightness to CBH's music (I don't see many WOMEN punching the air at Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson gigs, but there were screaming girls aplenty at the last two Flaherty / Corsano gigs I went to, and it wasn't just because of their boyish good looks). And a lyricism – check out the opening of "raising the dead (freezer fight)" and the final "is that all you got?" – Kelley, like fellow new trumpet heroes Axel Dörner and Franz Hautzinger, split the extended techniques atom long ago and has since returned from the outer reaches of planet nmperign with a trick bag of sounds to kick-start jazz trumpet anew without turning it into an empty display of chops. Meanwhile, Flaherty's just as at home playing mournful late night deserted subway station blues as he is exploring stratospheric meltdown. It's Magnificent, But It Isn't War is even better than its title. If I might borrow an adjective John Peel used to keep in reserve for The Fall: a mighty disc.

Family Vineyard FV 28
Here in old Europe the barriers between (free) jazz and (free) improv are still pretty clearly defined, at least for festival promoters and club owners – try putting together a group that plays both and good luck getting gigs: you'll be too far out for the jazz clubs and too far in for the improv set (I speak from experience). Don't be in a hurry to give up the day job. Fortunately, across the pond, firstly in New York in the early 80s, then in Chicago from the mid 90s, and more recently on the West Coast, as far south as the Trummerfloras in San Diego and as far north as Vancouver, such stylistic diversity is more easily accepted, even encouraged and applauded. The three musicians who make up Tigersmilk (not "the great-tasting candy bar in four original carob coated flavors: peanut butter, protein rich, peanut butter and honey, and peanut butter crunch" – go Google!) are major players in the Chicago and Vancouver scenes. Rob Mazurek's cornet and electronics have graced Isotope 217 and numerous incarnations of the Chicago Underground, bassist Jason Roebke has performed with groups as diverse as Rapid Croche, The Valentine Trio and Terminal 4 and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff is just as at home swinging the charts of the Peggy Lee Band and the NOW orchestra as he is improvising freely with the likes of John Butcher. The title, as any modern jazz loving Chicago resident will tell you, refers to the Empty Bottle, where this set was recorded on November 4th 2003. It's every bit as impressive as their earlier Family Vineyard debut (FV 19), and superbly recorded to boot.
It's precisely the openness to two distinctive traditions – free jazz and improv – that makes Tigersmilk such an exciting outfit. The willingness to dare to take risks and accept the consequences, even if it means sending the music in a radically different direction, is the heritage of free improvisation. But where "classic" improv outfits often opt for group consensus rather than individual conflict – the all-for-one-one-for-allness of the SME, the "invisible fourth member" of AMM (the group itself) – Mazurek, Roebke and van der Schyff manage to keep a clear hold of their individual personalities, recalling Archie Shepp's famous line: "in jazz, the musician is the treasure." There are explicit references to jazz language – van der Schyff's subtle, loping grooves, Roebke's Charlie Haden-like low end and even what sounds like a quote from Mingus' Cumbia and Jazz Fusion half way through track 4, and of course Mazurek's flirtations with the Harmon mute – but their appearance is so natural and logical in context that any suggestion that it's all just another exercise in hip Chicago postmodernism can be dismissed out of hand. Splendid stuff. How about a European tour, guys? Though God knows where you'd play.—DW

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Patty Waters
Water 137
The importance of figures like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler in the history of jazz is that they not only influenced scores of saxophonists – Ayler himself was called “Little Bird” as a Cleveland upstart – but their influence extended beyond to other instruments. Bird’s influence on pianists like Bud Powell has been well documented, as has Coltrane's. Ayler’s impact was obvious not only on tenor saxophonists like Frank Wright and Frank Smith, and trumpeters like his brother Don, but on figures like singer Patty Waters, whose concept and delivery both owe much to Ayler’s approach. Born in Iowa, raised in Denver, and musically trained in Southern California, Waters moved to New York in the early 1960s, where, after working with Jaki Byard and sitting in with Charles Mingus (one can only assume she was singing “Weird Nightmare”!), Ayler heard her and recommended her to Bernard Stollman as an ESP-Disk’ possibility. She recorded Patty Waters Sings for the label on December 19, 1965, accompanying herself on piano for seven short, moody tracks on side one, and for side two, engaged pianist Burton Greene and his usual working trio (with drummer Tom Price and bassist Steve Tintweiss) on the mythic side-long exposition of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Waters, with the trio rustling behind and around her, recites the first verse of the tune in a hushed vibrato, then after a brief Greene solo, focuses on the word “black,” abstracting it first into elongated tendrils of sound, then becoming wordless as she sighs, wails like a banshee, screams and shouts, hinging upon “black” again as the music’s intensity builds and – eventually – explodes. Like Ayler, she uses simple folk song motifs for most of her free explorations (“Hush Little Baby” being another favorite – see the follow up LP, College Tour), taking a phrase and repeating it naggingly, at the same time altering it into cathartic shouts and wails of pure emotion. At a fundamental level, Waters took it farther ‘out’ than Ayler; the saxophone, after all, separates the human from the sound being produced – it is a machine. But when the sound is coming from human vocal chords, its connection to our feelings is purer, more naked. Waters’ music is extremely direct, and this is probably the most bone-chilling music ever recorded under the banner of free improvisation. Most listeners of Waters’ music instinctively head for College Tour or side two of Sings, yearning for sounds of soul-baring and soul-probing intensity. We often forget about the music that takes up side one of Sings, short ballads of love and loss sung in a hushed voice, full of contradiction. The music on side one is in effect ‘straight,’ not improvised upon, and yet it is in some ways more impenetrably mysterious than her free singing. Simultaneously smooth and gravelly, words are bent and extended in ways that hint at what she is capable of, but stop short of the pyrotechnics. You Thrill Me, a collection of previously unissued demo takes and personal recordings, continues in this vein, proving that this "side one" of her music is just as worth investigating.

Beginning with a jingle for Jax Beer (!?!), the disc follows with 1964 demos for Columbia including “You Thrill Me,” “Why Can’t I Come To You” (both of which grace side one of Sings) and “At Last I Found You.” Waters had not yet reached her more "experimental" side, and though differences between the recordings (beyond between-take banter) might seem superficial, these are far straighter versions than appear on the ESP date, particularly “Why Can’t I Come To You”, whose tonality wavers far less than it does on Sings. Waters returned to California in the late ‘60s, probably shortly after recording with tenorman Marzette Watts for Savoy in 1968 (notably an earth-shattering, lyrical version of “Lonely Woman”), and the remainder of the disc comes from her previously undocumented 1970s sojourn on the West Coast. Apart from a lengthy, minimal solo piano piece, “Touched by Rodin in a Paris Museum,” the music consists of fairly brief voice-and-piano pieces. Her subtle intervallic jumps, dissonant (vocal) chords and wavering notes are all here, the way she growls and elides through “For All We Know” and breathily futzes with “Love is the Warmth of Togetherness” are proof that the experiments of 1965-66 made her into one of the most startling and unique vocalists of the post-Billie Holiday era.

In theory, one could say that Waters’ love songs are like Ayler’s standards on Something Different! and My Name Is Albert Ayler, a way to familiarize oneself with forms before tearing them apart, but also a reinvigoration of the forms themselves through experimentation. Ayler left an indelible mark on “Summertime” – so much so that his is just about the only version worth hearing – and Waters does the same, both on standards and her own ballads. Ironic though that an album of unissued recordings only serves to make her an even more enigmatic and curious figure than she was before.—CA

Less of Five
Nine Winds NWCD0244
Less of Five is an Italian quartet headed by pianist Giorgio Occhipinti, and their debut album Acrobati folli e innamorati is a Mediterranean holiday for Nine Winds, a label more usually associated with the Bay Area improv scene. You could call what they do “free jazz,” though if you’re expecting sonic assault or starchy abstraction you’ll be surprised by the music’s charm and lightness of touch. The fifteen pieces on the album are small enough to hold in the palm of your hand – even the two extended tracks, “Uma onda de mùsica continua” and “Témoignage de proximité”, turn out to be montages of briefer segments. The music has an elegantly playful flavour, at times curiously naïve-sounding: the singsong waltz “Le calmar dans le bassin,” for example, or Occhipinti’s whimsical nursery-rhyme interpolation on “Emulation” (which is then, of course, merrily stomped flat). The band – Occhipinti, alto saxophonist/clarinettist Olivia Bignardi, bassist Giuseppe Guarrella and drummer Antonio Moncada – keep things sprightly and consistently surprising, and Bignardi is especially striking: she’s a player in the tradition of soulful free-but-almost-“inside” players like Oliver Lake and Trevor Watts, and on “Témoignage de proximité” even draws on the romanticized blues sound of Johnny Hodges. This disc has been poorly served by jazz/improv journalism, beyond a nice Jason Bivins write-up in Cadence; even the usual year-end burst of retrospective music-journalism activity bypassed it completely. It’s a hard world indeed, when a disc as pleasurable and distinctive as this goes nearly unnoticed. Check it out.—ND

Joe Giardullo
Not Two MW 755-2
Solo soprano saxophone albums in so-called free improv are surprisingly frequent these days (think Alessandro Bosetti, John Butcher, Stéphane Rives, Michel Doneda..) but in jazz they're still relatively rare, probably because the musicians concerned don't exactly relish being compared to Steve Lacy, whose work still remains something a benchmark in the genre, albeit an idiosyncratic one. In fact the distinction I'm trying to draw is a rather silly, maybe even nonexistent one, insofar as three of the four pieces on offer on Weather are marked as Giardullo "compositions" (though they sound pretty open and improvised to me). The fourth track though is most definitely a composition, and a well-known one too: Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" (rather sloppy titling, that: in fact it's "Acknowledgment"). Giardullo, taking advantage of an intimate acoustic and attentive audience in Cracow's Klub Re (home base for Not Two's Marek Winiarski), seeks to lift Coltrane's work gingerly down from the ridiculously high pedestal on which it's been placed over recent years and return it to the domain of the personal, the introspective. It's a lonely business, playing solo, especially if you happen to choose a theme that everyone in the room knows well enough to imagine the harmony of (which is probably why the vast majority of solo horn albums don't contain cover versions). Joe Giardullo might be pleased to read – though I'm sure he knows it already – that I hear hardly any Lacy in his work at all, either in terms of structure – he's far more rhapsodic and given to flights of fancy than the clinically precise (though never cold) Lacy – or sound. Lacy's sound, like John Coltrane's on the instrument, was fat, round and rich in the lower register, while Giardullo's is leaner, more fragile and feminine and content to explore the cracks, especially on the beautiful title track, which sustains interest effortlessly over nearly 19 minutes: no mean feat. There is, though, another reference when it comes to soprano sax playing, in the form of Evan Parker, particularly his legendary circular breathing outings, and hearing Giardullo try his hand at the same sort of thing on "Times Change" – albeit using harmony that sounds more like Phil Glass – leads to a twinge of regret. Not much of a twinge though, as it's still a fine, coherent and impressive piece from an album well worth hunting down.—DW

The Cosmosamatics
Not Two MW 757-2
On this latest album from the Cosmosmatics, their fourth, the drum stool for once isn't occupied exclusively by Jay Rosen, though it is Rosen who drives the music forward in the closing track, "Avant Garde Destruct", taken from a concert in Prague in April 2004, five months before the remaining seven cuts were recorded in NYC. The drummer on that date was Clifford Barbaro, whose hard bop chops – he's worked among others with Lionel Hampton, Betty Carter, Charles Tolliver, Jon Hendricks and the Sun Ra Arkestra – are perfect for a collection of four Charlie Parker compositions (two takes of "Cheryl", "Drifting on a Reed" and "Bird Feathers") and a ballad medley – if two songs count as a medley – consisting of "Autumn in New York" and "In A Sentimental Mood". In such music one might regret the absence of a bassist (earlier Cosmosamatics outings featured William Parker and Curtis Lundy, but these days they're a trio), but Barbaro's on magnificent form. Even so, the backbone of the Cosmosamatics remains the double whammy reed team of Sonny Simmons (alto saxophone, English horn and, on "Autumn in New York", vocals) and Michael Marcus (tenor sax, saxello, Bb clarinet). The soloing is impressive throughout, particularly Marcus's moving clarinet reading of "In A Sentimental Mood", coming right after Simmons' touching Al Hibbleresque singing. Recalling Sunny Murray's description of his playing as "free bop", the Cosmosamatics is a free bop outfit par excellence, an authentic bridge between the music of Parker – Simmons is, after all, a first generation Bird disciple – and today's jazz. Quite what the title "Avant Garde Destruct" is supposed to signify isn't all that clear, but if the music is anything to go by it's certainly nothing grouchy and Crouchy. All three musicians fly high and free on this 24-minute finale, and you soon forget the slight difference in recording quality between the Prague club and the New York studio.—DW

David Borgo
Circumvention 042
As its title might lead you to expect, the music of multi-instrumentalist David Borgo goes in many directions, and, as is often the case, the choice of instrument determines the character of the piece. Borgo's chalumeau is brooding and introspective on the Eastern Europe-inflected "Conversations with the Not-Self", while his soprano is slinky and Liebmanesque on the opening "Sum-Thing from No-Thing"; the tenor, meanwhile, is cheeky and funky (a little David Murray-like) on "Beantown Bounce", punchy and powerful on the title track, and down home soulful on "Miko" with pianist Anthony Davis (I'd never have guessed it was Davis if I hadn't consulted the sleeve, though he is more recognisably out there on the later "Rivers of Consciousness"). Murray's work with the WSQ also comes to mind on listening to the two saxophone trio tracks with Andy Connell and Robert Reigle, of which "Sync"'s exploration of timbral and microtonal nuances of sustained tones is more substantial and satisfying. No fewer than five of the 13 tracks are duets with percussionists, two with Nathan Hubbard (on fine form throughout) and three with Gustavo Aguilar, both of whom can't resist settling into a groove now and then – though Aguilar's looser playing on "Tenochtitlan" is as colourful as it is enjoyable. With bassist Bertram Turetsky on board, the music swerves towards the free, with the loose homophony of "On The Five" and the splendid, fiery and all-too-brief title track. Indeed, the album might have benefited from more longer cuts such as "Oddity", on which George Lewis blows some typically wicked and rambunctious trombone, spurring Borgo and the rest of the quintet to the most inspired music on the album.—DW

Achim Kaufmann
Leo CD LR 409
Pandelis Karayorgis
Leo CD LR 417
Solo albums aren't all that easy to bring off, and solo piano albums are no exception. Maybe Keith Jarrett would disagree, but among all his boxes upon boxes of solo stuff there's only about an hour and a half worth listening to. The near-simultaneous appearance on the same label – Leo – of these individual offerings from two pianists who have hitherto worked only with small ensembles provides us with a good opportunity to survey and compare the work of Achim Kaufmann and Pandelis Karayorgis, and try once more to re-explore the territory between jazz and improv, somewhere in the middle of which an imaginary boundary lies – with one of these albums on either side of it. Achim Kaufmann, after a couple of deft and elegant excursions into the domain of (post?) ECM-style jazz (Weave, a trio on Jazz4ever with Ingmar Heller and Jochen Rückert, and Double Exposure, his first Leo outing in 2000, with Michael Moore, John Schröder and John Hollenbeck), has been moving slowly but surely leftfield into improv, firstly with a few tentative steps on 2002's gueuledeloup, once again with Moore, followed by an enthusiastic leap on last year's Kwast (Konnex), with Frank Gratkowski and Wilbert de Joode. With the exception of Herbie Nichols' "2300 Skiddoo", of which more later, the seventeen tracks on Knives are all Kaufmann improvisations whose titles come from the work of his wife, poet Gabriele Guenther. She's also responsible, it seems, for the Abstract Expressionist splat of red and brown paint that adorns the wall behind Kaufmann in the booklet photo (and the CD inner tray). Fortunately the pianist's playing is a good deal more subtle and less violent than his spouse's artwork – apart from a rash of angry clusters and glissandi in "Sheets surfacing like an ocean" there's hardly any of the titanic piano bashing one normally associates with the likes of Fred Van Hove or Cecil Taylor. Stylistically it's refreshingly hard to pin down – several tracks use "mixed techniques", i.e. Kaufmann plays inside the instrument, sometimes partially preparing it, but there the comparison ends with seasoned preparers like John Tilbury, Jacques Demierre, Frédéric Blondy and Sophie Agnel (Keith Tippett might be a better choice, though). The only track that goes beyond the five minute mark – and only three exceed four minutes – is the aforementioned Herbie Nichols cover. Interesting that Kaufmann should opt for a Nichols piece, inviting as it does the comparison with that other great Dutch pianist and Nichols champion, Misha Mengelberg. There's not much to compare actually – though we'll have more to say about Misha when we discuss the Karayorgis outing below – Kaufmann is fluid, supple, exhibiting a relaxed and nuanced pianism that owes as much to a classical training, and the tradition of the Etude (Debussy and Ligeti..), while Mengelberg is gauche, clunky and Monky. Kaufmann's reading of "2300 Skiddoo" is a real treat (and reveals a thorough knowledge of Misha, Monk – but also Messiaen), but it's only one of a whole bag of treats on offer here.

The difference between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, according to a splendid documentary on the life and work of the former that came my way recently as a bonus DVD with my copy of An American In Paris, was that Astaire's centre of gravity was higher than Kelly's; the same might be said of Kaufmann compared to Pandelis Karayorgis. Not that Karayorgis is heavy-handed – far from it: his reading of Warne Marsh's "Background Music" is loose-limbed and supple – but, like Monk, he tends to treat the piano as what it is first and foremost: a percussion instrument. Seventeen Pieces, his first solo release, is his sixth outing on Leo (after three splendid Leo Lab dates including Heart and Sack with Nate McBride and Randy Peterson, and the trio Blood Ballad and the quintet Disambiguation) and according to the liner notes it's a project Karayorgis been working on and up to for a number of years. It's not surprising then to come across a selection of material that charts his development so far, from Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" via Lennie Tristano's "Baby " to Dolphy's "Gazzelloni". Monk's in there, of course – "Ugly Beauty" and a cunning reading of "Criss Cross" – as is Sun Ra ("Super Bronze"), but apart from a couple of other old chestnuts the music is by Karayorgis himself. Mengelberg once more comes to mind, not only because of the Monk connection, but because Karayorgis is quite happy if need be to let his explorations lead him off the beaten track (though he usually manages to find his way back to the footpath before too long, whereas Misha is often quite content to remain plunking away obstinately in the undergrowth, sometimes never coming back in at all). Throughout, that centre of gravity remains low: Karayorgis has little time for the top octaves – ethereal tinkling is most definitely not his thing – nor does he go for the clusters and fisticuffs that Kaufmann occasionally indulges in. From a technical point of view Seventeen Pieces is a much more straight ahead affair than Knives, and one not afraid to use the J word (jazz), either; but Karyorgis's way of working his material is just as advanced as Kaufmann's. His version of "Gazzelloni" is as masterly as his cover of "Miss Ann" on Heart and Sack (and not many musicians have got the balls to tackle that thorny head), finding and exploring the common ground between Dolphy and Monk – all angles and corners, a world where interval counts more than pitch – and he can approach a standard like "I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You" in a thoroughly oblique and constructivist manner without sounding in any way deliberately ironic or subversive. Karayorgis's originals are as strong and memorable as Kaufmann's extemporisations, and there's little to choose between Kaufmann's reading of Nichols and Karayorgis's covers. In fact, there's no point comparing these two albums any more. You need them both.—DW

Territory Band-3
Okka Disk 12060
Gold Sparkle Trio with Ken Vandermark
Squealer 039
Okka Disk 12052
Given Ken Vandermark’s impatience with most jazz criticism, I’m almost hesitant to comment on Map Theory, the third outing by his Territory Band, but it's an enjoyable example of Vandermark extending his musical ideas to a larger group as well as exploring non-jazz themes. The band’s instrumentation, augmenting the Vandermark 5 with other playmates – Kevin Drumm on electronics, trumpeter Axel Dörner, saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist, tuba-player Per-Ake Holmlander, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, pianist Jim Baker and percussionists Paul Lytton and Paal Nilssen-Love – gives the music a flavor unlike anything else in Vandermark’s work. Territory Band compositions are variations on the riff-driven “acoustic machines” that have characterized the V5, with Drumm and Lytton in particular adding quirky textures to the mix. Things get off to a good start with “A Certain Light” (dedicated to the memory of Peter Kowald), on which the propulsive motifs of Vandermark's baritone sax initiate the piece’s thematic shifts. When he’s joined by the entire group the effect is stirring, but the moments when the ensemble breaks up into smaller, quieter units are just as satisfying – the two versions of the composition “Slides” explore the possible subgroupings of the ensemble to great effect. The final “Image as Text” runs out of steam somewhat; without it Map Theory might have been a satisfying single disc release (the two discs together barely run more than 80 minutes) – so if you’re looking for an introduction to the group the single-CD release Atlas is perhaps the one to get.
Vandermark fits in perfectly in the Ornettish agenda of the Gold Sparkle Trio. Brooklyn Cantos begins with the Revolutionary Ensemble’s “People’s Republic”, on which Charles Water’s chattering alto subs nicely for Leroy Jenkins’ violin. Vandermark’s blaring tenor sounds jarring and ill considered at first, but it ultimately redefines the song. After the Colemanesque romp of “’Burg Girl”, “Marcella Variations #1” is a lazily loping song composed by drummer Andrew Barker on the banjo (the Marcella in question is his wife), with Vandermark (on bass clarinet) and bassist Adam Roberts managing to emulate the banjo’s syncopation. Not everything is an unqualified success – “Architecture #12 (718)”, revived from the band’s earlier release Downsizing, lurches through various tempo changes without turning up anything of much consequence until too late – but by the time the final rollicking New Orleans-influenced “Carpet Quarterbagger” is over, you have a disc that is easy to recommend to fans as well as the uninitiated.
Vandermark 5 member Dave Rempis’s band Triage features V5 drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Jason Ajemian. Their previous release Twenty Minute Cliff was characterized by songs that revealed their subtle charms only after repeated listenings, and American Mythology is in the same vein, but digs in harder and is much more immediately engaging as a result. Rempis’s work on tenor and alto is getting ever more personalized and intense, and Ajemian is a similarly powerful player, sometimes attacking the open strings and body of the bass with sticks (that might sound gimmicky, but he does it selectively and effectively). Meanwhile Daisy, whose joyful clatter has been a major contribution to the Vandermark 5 for two years now, really comes into his own in this trio setting, which more fully illustrates his ability to provide subtle colors and shading instead of just propelling the songs forward. There isn’t a weak moment: each cut is full of twists and turns, and the interplay is terrific, good enough even to recall the work of the great Chicago trio Air. I’m already looking forward to their next release.—SG

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Michael Renkel / Luca Venitucci
L'innomable 04
I've always been fond of the word "still" and its two dictionary definitions, one the adjective meaning calm, immobile, the other the adverb, as in "does Berlin Reductionism still exist?" (there's also an outside chance Messrs Renkel and Venitucci are referring to the large vessel used in the preparation of hard liquor, though I seriously doubt it). The answer to that question above by the way is probably no, since there's nothing remotely reductionist / minimal / lowercase about this latest outing from guitarist Renkel (of the Phosphor collective) and accordionist Venitucci (of Zeitkratzer fame). Not that either musician was ever really hardcore minimalist in the first place – Renkel's other outings have revealed a guitarist closer in spirit to the euphoric Olaf Rupp than the ascetic Annette Krebs (compare Renkel and Rupp's respective contributions to Berlin Strings a while back), a player evidently in love with the sheer physicality of the guitar, and not afraid to make it sound like one. This is a direct flouting of what shall hereafter be referred to as Rowe's Law – "Thy guitar shall under no circumstances ever sound like a guitar" – which of course has been applied with missionary zeal to other instruments by various practitioners over the past few years. Luca Venitucci, though certainly well versed in extended techniques, is no dogmatic practitioner of Rowe's Law either (my vote for the most "extreme" accordionist right now would go to Alfredo Costa Monteiro): even the most reactionary devotee of French bal musette could recognise the instrument he's playing as an accordion. That said, they certainly won't be dancing to this at the local guinguette. Going back to the album title, there's nothing still (immobile) about these three extended tracks, of which the first, entitled "Second Order Observation", is the most substantial. The music is distinctly fluid, even if it advances at reductionism's leisurely pace. Unlike seasoned practitioners of "classic" reductionism though, Renkel doesn't go out of his way to avoid repetition – check out the quiet but nervous pattern making on "Serraglio" and "Interferenze". Venitucci, who's also credited as playing his flight-case, adds some well-timed thuds and bangs. It all adds up to a remarkably fresh and surprising outing from two thoughtful and creative musicians on a label to watch.—DW

Bertrand Gauguet
Creative Sources cs021
Etwa consists of seven soprano and alto saxophone solos recorded by Pierre-Olivier Boulant in February and July 2004 in two secluded French chapels in the Morbihan and Tarn departments. As with Stéphane Rives’ recent Potlatch release, Fibres, we are in the world of closely observed airflows that determinedly avoid the physical configurations that lead to the sounds conventionally associated with the saxophone. Using circular breathing techniques, Gauguet produces an array of sounds, including sliding exhalations, hisses, guttural gurgles, subterraneous rumbles, ringing overtones, whistles, and a sound like distant wind heard from within a tunnel. Such an unorthodox approach to pitch and timbre is worthwhile in itself, but more successful still is Gauguet’s fashioning of this material into articulated streams of subtle changes and sharper modulations that challenge and delight the ear and do so without recourse to schematic prefabricated structures. One disadvantage of circular breathing is that its relentlessness reduces the opportunity for effective deployment of silence, but Gauguet does pause from time to time, which provides relief and allows the sounds of the wider soundscape, especially the calls of the birds around the chapel, to percolate evocatively into the recording.—WS

The Scotch of St. James
Confront Collectors Series CCS2
Live at Amplify 2004: Addition was recorded by Tim Barnes and Mark Wastell at one of the “side shows” that supplemented the main events at the Amplify festival held in Berlin in May 2004. Comparing the CD with my memories of the concert, which I attended, Barnes strikes me as louder than he was on the night, while Wastell’s playing, heard without the benefit of watching him physically shift between his various instruments, conveys a less high-spirited and active impression than it did in the small Labor Sonar venue. None of this makes much difference, however: it was a fine performance and this is a fine disc. Barnes plays a single amplified and prepared snare drum, from which he elicits the sounds of cracking wood, rattling, clattering metal and rubbed skin. He eschews bold gestures and rhythmic propulsion, giving the impression in his more extended contributions of being engaged in some troubling, mysterious and perhaps illicit process of physical construction. Wastell employs a wider range of sound sources, shifting adroitly between amplified textures, tuned metallic percussion and simple electronics. But the magic in the music comes from their work together rather than individual efforts viewed in isolation. Sometimes this takes the form of immediate response, as when a blast of white noise from Wastell prompts what sounds like the agitated ringing of a broken bell from Barnes; but more often proceeds through a less ostentatious complementarity that keeps their respective contributions consistent with, and cognisant of, each other without a simple pattern of call and response. Importantly, the music also possesses an enticing spaciousness, perfectly captured in the beautifully clear recording, and variety, as the duo shift through various textures, volumes, combinations and timbres over the course of the 36-minute improvisation. This is music that demands and rewards attention from the listener. Well worth investigating.—WS

Fred Frith/John Zorn
Tzadik TZ 5005
This album, recorded as part of John Zorn's 50th birthday celebrations at Tonic in September 2003, finds him in stellar form, his alto sax emitting cries of indignation, a surgical emancipation from trickery, a freedom apparently inspired by his sense of supremacy in territorial battles against soiled lyricism. Zorn and guitarist Frith know each other's moves by heart, but you can't help being captivated by their deranged conversations, as Fred morphs his instrument into a multi-faceted timbral dialect that to this day has no equal. Frith predated a lot of what has become standard practice in today's guitar world – alternate tunings, dissonant strumming, masterly use of the volume pedal and percussive treatment of the body of the instrument were practically unheard of thirty years ago – yet he still brings everything to the table with the same good-natured innocence of a kid picking his nose looking into the window of a toy shop. It's as if the quasi-silences and the rumbling contingencies of 1995's The Art of Memory (Incus) were advance warning of the storm that this latest duo represents; while the improvisations on the earlier album seemed to be looking for the smallest conduit to squeeze through, the energy level goes up a few notches here, as Zorn and Frith hammer on our sense of aural fitness, shake us by the shoulders, and force us to reassess who and what we too easily call great. Be in no doubt though – this one will last.—MR

Chris Brown
Pogus 21034-2
A student of Gordon Mumma, William Brooks and David Rosenboom, Chicagoan Chris Brown is an active electronic composer and improviser, and an important figure in installations and computer music networking. This particular project, released on Al Margolis' Pogus imprint, one of the most uncompromising new music labels, reflects all the basic aspects of his work. Taking sounds from several locations (Bali, Philippines, Cuba, Holland, Hawaii and several American cities) recorded through binaural microphones attached to his sunglasses to obtain a spatialization more or less impossible to reproduce in a studio, Brown organized his field recordings on a system of four laptops interacting with live musicians, including Wadada Leo Smith, William Winant and David Gibson. The laptop network reproduces these recordings in different ways according to the performance of the "acoustic" musicians, the process splintering the music into a series of interchangeable cells, a "free-regulation-far-from-chaos" kind of result that elicits dense conversation and textural architecture. It's what could really be called "world music", in which Balinese processions, Cuban dance rhythms and the chatter of Filipino markets mix with seabirds and instruments in a cavalcade of connections and clashes that keeps notching up our attention span throughout.—MR

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Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon DG 476 2528
Now reissued as part of the Gramophone Awards Collection, this disc, glorious proof that Pierre Boulez has managed to preserve his modernist roots without ignoring the postmodernism's return to the past, has been hailed as a classic by contemporary music enthusiasts and will no doubt grow in stature as the years go by. It opens with a concertante work for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists whose material is derived from the short piano piece "Incises" (1994). The resulting "Sur Incises" (1996/98), suggests incisions, a cutting into, a reminder of what happens when a pianist strikes a key: hammer cuts into string, which in turn cuts into hammer – a sharp, violent effect. The piano's hammers are mirrored in the percussion and its strings in the harps, meaning the work's sound world is organically derived – a crucial feature of all Boulez's work – but within the confines of this ensemble he discovers an extraordinary range of colour, and, more surprisingly, a wide range of stylistic reference. The piece opens with a passage that could have come straight from a jazz set – again, organically derived: the composer's previous experiments with indeterminacy have led him to forms which sound more improvised, where elements can once more "cut into” each other. One of the pianos reiterates a defiant bass note, soon surrounded by a series of complex ornaments that curl upwards to a strummed pedal point, as in Ravel’s "Scarbo". In the following section there are echoes of several modernist classics, including, most prominently, Stravinsky’s "Three Movements from Petrushka". The work’s construction is indebted to Stravinsky, not only to the concertante arrangement in "Les Noces" but also to the older composer's love of static ostinato and homophony, as reflected in the deceptively simple motifs Boulez employs. Repeated notes play a vital role, and are best reflected in the percussion, but they are counterbalanced by ascending and descending scales, which are better suited to the sound-world offered by the harps (although there is a moment about half way through the work when the harps take up the strummed pedal-point, reversing the effect). Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the toccata section after the opening, which occasionally makes reference to Bartók but often seems more akin to the "War Sonatas" of Prokofiev, in sharp contrast to the preceding music, which is far more languorous and Scriabinesque (particularly recalling his Ninth Sonata, the "Black Mass"). Given that Boulez regards Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg as the five greatest composers to have worked almost wholly in the twentieth century and is notoriously reluctant to perform music by any of their contemporaries, it is surprising to find him echoing Scriabin and Prokofiev. Even more surprising is his blatant indebtedness to Messiaen. Boulez’s love-hate relationship towards his former teacher is exorcised as much in a free use of Messiaen’s musical gestures as in a reaction against how those gestures are interrelated. Although Boulez’s rational conception of form is the antithesis of Messiaen’s surrealist collage, it does not prevent him from adapting collage elements. In "Sur Incises", these recur with remarkable frequency; as the toccata subsides and the second movement begins, Boulez shifts from Eastern Europe to early twentieth-century Vienna, the harmonic vocabulary becoming noticeably less modal. The work ends with a dramatic gesture similar to the closing bars of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: a massive “incision” followed by a few faltering heartbeats before the music fades into nothingness. Geographically, "Sur Incises" covers most of Continental Europe, or at least those areas Boulez is interested in. It also covers a huge stretch of time, from 1900 to 1950. There is then an ambiguity inherent in the work: is this a retrospective by an older composer, complete with quotes from his oeuvre as well as his musical childhood and adolescence, or a nod towards a more postmodern aesthetic? Maybe both positions are two sides of the same coin: Boulez has reached a stage where an ironic stance towards the past is adopted to test it – and consequently reaffirm or negate it. In this light, "Sur Incises" is both as a glorious summary of his career and an attempt to uncover many of the elements which it has repressed.

Similar observations can be made when one compares "Messagesquisse" (1976-77) with "Anthèmes 2" (1997). In the earlier work, for solo cello and six accompanying cellos, there is an obvious affinity with Bartók’s string writing explored through the medium of atonality. In opting for a twelve-note moto perpetuo, Boulez is aiming to compose unambiguously Western, modernist music. "Anthèmes 2" however is an entirely different proposition, an extremely homogenous work exploiting a solo violin in ways that radically depart from ultra-modernist orthodoxy. One of the most important elements in "Anthèmes 2" is the strophic medieval psalm chant, Boulez’s six variations on it warped and distorted by live electronics like voices singing in a Gothic cathedral. The distortion and multiplication of the violin sounds (Boulez has clearly learnt from Nono’s experiments in "…sofferte onde serene…" and "La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura") often creates microtones or glissandi, which are then incorporated as critical structural features in their own right. Boulez has never been critical of such figurations in the Stockhausen "Klavierstücke" or the music of Lachenmann where their appearance is always motivated by a serialist or quasi-serialist logic, but most of his glissandi sound more like Xenakis, a composer who refused to have any truck with the serialism. Xenakis's "Metastasis" was the first score to incorporate glissandi as a major structural device, establishing him as the de facto head of the “texturalists”, a group Boulez implacably opposed. But Boulez is aware of his relationship with the past, and determined to explore it. Like Wagner, he has also founded an imposing institution that has not only declared war with everything outside itself but which also frequently swallows its enemies’ finest ideas and digests them into something it can accept. Where Wagner’s interest in the medieval centred on knights and warriors, though, Boulez’s IRCAM suggests more the image of the medieval monk or scholar. In this age of the troubadour, "Anthèmes 2" is a timely reminder of the cloister.
The performances, needless to say, are exemplary.—NR

John Cage
Mode 141
OgreOgress 643157342823
"One8" (damn this sodding machine - does anyone know how to get superscript numbers to display in Dreamweaver? send mail) was written for the cellist Michael Bach, who first performed the work (simultaneously with "108", an orchestral composition) in Stuttgart in 1991. Cage's score makes specific use of Bach's self-designed curved BACHbow, which allows him to play all four strings of the instrument comfortably – that said, some of the triple and quadruple stop chords the composer demands remain fiendishly difficult to execute. The work's 53 flexible time brackets actually overlap, allowing for a continuously sounding 43'30" performance if desired. Whether Julius Berger does that on the other available recording of the work (on Wergo, WER 6288-2, coupled with Sofia Gubaidulina's "Twelve Preludes") I don't know, as I don't have a copy of that release – woe betide anyone who wants to collect every available version of Cage's number pieces!– but it's not an option that Bach chooses. There's plenty of space between events in his version, making the whole thing sound in places remarkably like Nikos Veliotis's Radial (Confront). Which is probably not all that surprising since Veliotis uses a BACHbow to help him create his rich drones.

The OgreOgress label's Cage series continues with "One4" (1990), for solo percussion, "Four" (1989) for string quartet, and "Twenty-Nine" (1991), for strings and percussion. The performers are, as ever, the label's stalwarts Christina Fong (violins and violas) and Glenn Freeman (percussion), along with cellist Karen Krummel and bassist Michael Crawford. Putting Rob Haskins' liner notes on the CD itself prevents you from reading along while listening, and that's certainly a good thing, but make sure you have a magnifying glass to hand – and if you suffer from eyestrain, give them a miss altogether. "One4" consists of just fourteen sounds – the piece lasts seven minutes – Cage providing six time brackets for the left hand and eight for the right hand, but leaving questions of dynamics and choice of instrumentation up to the performer. Freeman's version is as ascetic and frosty as his other Cage percussion outings, but helps to prepare the ear for the following "Four". This was originally written for and premiered by the Arditti Quartet, who have also recorded it, twice (a 30-minute version for Mode and a 20-minute version for Audivis Montaigne), and consists of four parts, each of which may be played by any of the players. Cage chooses notes that lie comfortably in the range of the violin, viola and cello, allowing for interchangeability. Each part consists of three five-minute sections (A, B and C), with flexible time brackets and one fixed time bracket. In a performance, parts have to be exchanged and repeated by another player after finishing one or more sections. Fong and Krummel's version comes with instructions to programme your CD player to provide an alternative 30-minute ordering, two 20-minute readings and a further two 10-minute versions. The performance is serious and well-executed, and the flexibility of Cage's score seems to accept the possibility of multi-tracked recording (the case here), but, probably simply due to the fact that it was recorded by four musicians playing together, the Arditti reading on Mode (Mode 27) seems to have a little more presence.

One might argue that a certain kind of presence is also what's lacking on "Twenty-Nine", in that a recording of the piece performed by 29 musicians, in the acoustic of a concert hall or large recording studio, would sound rather different from this overdubbed version, impressive and craggy though it is. There's something distinctly ominous, even suffocating, about the piece, with its gloomy timpani rolls and eerie percussion whooshes behind a curtain of thick static string drone. Cage once described the number pieces as a kind of metaphor for a better world in which we could live; from a democratic and humanist perspective that may be true, but the light in this country is pale and low, and the landscape drab and uninviting. The people who live there though are the salt of the earth. Bit like Lancashire, really.—DW

Giacinto Scelsi
Mode 143
I feel a bit guilty, given the volume of great new music being produced these days, about reviewing two pieces written over half a century ago. Giacinto Scelsi's "Action Music" dates after all from 1955, and his "Suite No.2" from 1930, but as this latter – one of twelve piano suites composed by Scelsi, along with four sonatas and forty preludes – has never been recorded before I guess that makes it new. Well, sort of. The Suite, subtitled "The Twelve Minor Prophets" (after Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) is proof that the heady perfume of Scriabin wasn't blown away by the smoke and mustard gas of World War One. Scelsi might already have been moving towards the original and esoteric concepts that occupied him in the latter part of his life, but the piano writing here, with its heroic octaves and Lisztian flourishes, is still very nineteenth century. Oddities such as the end of the eighth movement and the excitable Janacek-like flurries of activity in the ninth give the impression that this work too was a transcribed improvisation, though Sabine Feisst's fine (as ever) liner notes claim that the composer only started recording and transcribing his piano extemporisations at the end of the 1940s. Of course, wealthy chap that he was, he didn't transcribe them himself, but employed a number – as many as twelve, Feisst notes – of assistants to do the job. I pity the poor sod who had to write out "Action Music" and its thousands of forearm and palm clusters. The juxtaposition of black and white note splashes hint both at Messiaen and Ligeti's later non-tonal diatonicism, but the bombast is still rooted in tortured Romanticism. And, improvised though it might have been, it certainly sounds written out in Stephen Clarke's reading – try comparing this to one of Fred Van Hove's extended improvisations and you'll hear the difference – and comes across as rather stilted (Scelsi's fault, not Clarke's). One supposes that the title was chosen to imply a parallel between Scelsi's composition and the action painting of Pollock, but for genuine Abstract Expressionist splurge, Boulez's First and Second sonatas and the later Klavierstücken of Stockhausen pack more of a punch. Scelsi might indeed have been a vessel through which music flowed, but that doesn't mean to say that it was always all that good.—DW

Tod Dockstader / David Lee Myers
Tod Dockstader has long been regarded as a major figure in the history of electronic music, though his work is still relatively little known (even to other practitioners – Luc Ferrari failed to identify Dockstader in a recent Invisible Jukebox for The Wire), probably because his fame rests on a handful of releases – notably Eight Electronic Pieces, Apocalypse, Drone / Water Music and Quatermass – that have been long out of print, though Dockstader champions Dawson Prater (of Locust Music) and Chris Cutler (of ReR) have been doing their best to rectify that of late with some timely reissues. Dockstader himself stopped composing back in the late 1960s, after the ambitious Omniphony 1 (with James Reichert, reissued on ReR). "It was a lousy experience. I just walked away. I guess I'd done what I wanted to do," said the composer, with characteristic frankness. Well, the good news is that Tod Dockstader's back, in another collaborative work, this time with David Lee Myers, another celebrated (cult?) electronics whiz kid. The bad news is that Pond is about as exciting as its cover, a Dockstader photomontage that wouldn't be out of place on some hideous Goth outing. The music itself is not bad, just uninteresting. Sourced – surprise – from recordings of insects living in and around a pond, I suppose there's a fair amount of fun to be had trying to tell where the noises come from, but as Dockstader was using the sounds of crickets and gurgling water more creatively back in 1963, one wonders why he felt the need for a comeback. And what that doyen of abstract music, Asmus Tietchens, who's signed several collaborative works with Myers over the years, would make of it all is anyone's guess. If it sends punters off towards Dockstader's great early works, all well and good, but it'll probably end up as great soundtrack material for some insufferably trendy PBS documentary about bugs fucking.—DW

Simon H. Fell / SFQ
Red Toucan RT 9326
When I began reviewing it didn’t take me long to figure out that strong-but-unpleasant adjectives beat dull-but-nice ones. (One of my proudest moments was a rave review of a disc that referred to it as “disgusting.”) Bassist/composer Simon Fell takes a similar tack: his liner notes to Four Compositions amiably speak of the music’s “icy inflexibility,” “impassive granite blocks”, “desiccated textures and monochromatic intensity” – to take a few phrases at random. Quite the sales job, eh? As the stark tactile and visual metaphors suggest, Fell tends to think of his music in terms of the visual arts. (Thirteen Rectangles, SFQ’s previous disc, was based on a Kandinsky painting.) This means that the pieces are often what Fell himself calls “non-developmental”, made up of short sections – panels, you could call them – that are juxtaposed rather than connected by an obvious narrative logic. You always feel they could have been arranged differently – and in fact, they often are, since Fell is an inveterate reviser and recycler.
Though both discs of this set are credited to “SFQ”, they are the work of two very different ensembles. Disc one, recorded in 2003, contains three pieces performed by the Thirteen Rectangles band: clarinettist Alex Ward, trombonist Gail Brand, pianist Alex Maguire and drummer Steve Noble, in addition to Fell himself on bass. “Köln Klang” is a rather inscrutable composition “inspired by and partly depicting the soundworld of a hotel bedroom in Köln.” (My impression is that the soundworld in question involved church bells and snoring.) “Trapped by Formalism 2” is a collapsing-wedding-cake of a piece bookended by a barrage of fragments and an aphoristic piano coda. “Gruppen Modulor 2” is the longest of the three, at 24 minutes, and falls into five distinct parts: a frenzied introduction, a clangy drum feature overlaid by stiff Braxtonian horns, a subdued trombone/clarinet/piano trio, a somewhat ungainly freebop “Blues” (sic: it doesn’t sound like a blues at all) that prompts a stunning solo from Maguire, and a cryptic, drawn-out coda. My one reservation about an otherwise excellent disc is the echoey and colourless Gateway Studios recording; in the louder passages Fell himself is sometimes hard to pick out.
Disc two, a single 44-minute piece recorded in January 2004 in Liverpool’s Bluecoat Centre by Chris Trent, benefits from a brighter, clearer recording. The band now consists of Ward, Fell, French-horn player Guy Llewellyn, and drummer Mark Sanders. Though Fell says the music is “less jazz orientated”, the open textures and seamless knitting-together of improvisation and composition make it more familiar territory for the jazz/improv fan than disc 1. As usual with Fell, there’s nothing obvious about how it’s put together. In addition to the three “Liverpool” pieces (numbered 1a, 1b and 2) there are two cut-ins from the “Gruppen Modulor” series (a tempestuous free-jazz reading of “GM2 Blues” and the Braxton-goes-samba “GM3 Rhythm”), a whistling-wind “Quartet” that appears to be entirely improvised and a stripped-down coda built around Fell’s arco bass, “Kandinsky Lines”. As far as I know this is Llewellyn’s recording debut, and he’s obviously a player to watch: he’s a powerhouse on an instrument usually considered a tough go for improvised music, and his work on “GM2 Blues” is little short of astonishing. Sanders’ slippery-eel drumming makes a huge difference to the band sound: with his acute ear for colour he makes the air come alive with subtle washes of overtones. But it’s Alex Ward who pulls off the disc’s biggest coup on “Liverpool 1a” with a clarinet solo like a half-pierced dream, tender and self-consuming, full of charged, quick-evaporating insights. If you want a single reason to get the album, Ward’s solo is enough: it’s simply one of the best improvised statements I’ve heard in recent years. As for the rest of Four Compositions, I’m sure Fell would prefer I called it “frigid” and “intractable”, but I’m afraid I’ll just have to settle for “outstanding” and – horror of horrors – “highly enjoyable”.—ND

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Stephan Mathieu
Headz 33
As far as I can work out there don't seem to be any spaces between the words "The", "Sad" and "Mac" that make up the album title – though maybe I should double check. After all, it's the little details in life that make all the difference, and that's especially true of Stephan Mathieu's work. Like his close friend Akira Rabelais, whose "wonderful software creatures" he acknowledges using here, Mathieu shows that that most functional and impersonal of musical instruments, the laptop, is capable of producing work not only of great beauty, but of mysterious and powerful emotion. Mathieu's trademark slowly shifting washes of sound – "drone" is far too banal a word to describe them, and "stasis" won't do either, as they're never static – are simply gorgeous. The predominantly acoustic origins of the source material, however camouflaged and extruded beyond recognition by the software, imbue Mathieu's music with a warmth and richness of timbre often lacking in the overpopulated world of contemporary electronica. "Theme for Oud Amelisweerd" is based on fragments of a Händel violin sonata (Mathieu also credits the performers on the recording he sampled, a friendly enough gesture) morphed into long threads of plaintive slowmotion counterpoint (Rabelais' work on Spellwauerinsherde isn't too far away), and three of the tracks are mixed-down versions of music originally composed as a soundtrack to an exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci, sourced from the music of Monteverdi, notably the magnificent "icredevirrA (The Last Supper)". Along with the slow, elegiac material Mathieu also smuggles in some crunchy miniatures. The opening "Anakrousis" is intriguingly described as an "overture in Ancient Greek style featuring the OS of an Apple Lisa computer blended with some music of Jacques Tati movies" (Janek Schaefer is credited on "records", curiously enough) but good luck if you can identify which ones in nine seconds. Mathieu doesn't only look to the past for source material either – "Tinfoil Star", featuring some exquisitely processed viola drones, reappears in a version for a 1909 Edison wax cylinder phonograph. Similarly, there's something deliciously obscure about informing listeners that the six-second swooping organ glissando called "Portrait of the Composer as Turbonegro" is "a photograph by Petra Kallsjö and Howard Suhr Perez as interpreted by Tracy Rivers' Krachhaus". Interleaving the contemplative and the melancholy with the playful and childlike is a Mathieu hallmark: "Luft von anderen Planeten" (a titular homage to poet Stefan George, but also to the second Schoenberg String Quartet) features recordings of Mathieu's daughter Eva-Lucy, "making sticks and stones soup" in the family garden, but the poignancy of the track comes from the rich harmony underlying the field recordings. This, is turns out, is sourced from Derek Holzer's recordings of radio emissions from space, and another meaning is subtly mapped onto Mathieu's work, the juxtaposition of the local and the universal, the tiny, gentle gestures of a little girl and the inhuman immensity of the cosmos. Is that going over the top? My esteemed colleague Brian Marley, reviewing this one for The Wire last November, seemed to think it was all a little too much, even going so far as to use the words "heavy-handed", but as far as I'm concerned, you can "give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken and so die."—DW

Darren Tate
Fungal 10
Fungal 11
Fungal 12
Besides being a mainstay of the Ora and Monos collectives, well known for various masterpieces in the domain of electronica / field recordings, York's Darren Tate has released a sizeable body of work on his own Fungal label, including solo releases and collaborations with good friends including Colin Potter, Andrew Chalk and Paul Bradley. These come in ultra limited editions of 50 or 100 copies, so move quickly because most of them are real gems, and highly desirable objects in their own right thanks to Tate's fine accompanying artwork, often incorporating real flowers, leaves and other organic materials.
Concentrate a little bit while listening to By The Stream and soon a resinoid liquid composed of hypnotic electro-loops (courtesy Colin Potter) will flood your mental space. The water flowing throughout the record's course forms an environmental backdrop to unfathomable materializations of concrete instrumental embellishment – an acoustic guitar emits its lamentations for several minutes – and revisitations of blurred snapshots in a radioactive quasi-serenity. This is serious sound painting and its only drawback is its brevity, at about 36 minutes.
Remains was composed in 1985-86 and was remastered by Andrew Chalk in 2004. It's a sort of an improvised study of the low range of a synthesizer mixed with distant noises such as motor engines (a Tate trademark) and what sounds like muffled firecrackers towards the end. With just these few elements, Tate sustains the interest over 56 minutes very proficiently; the droning lows come and go, sometimes a little louder to rouse us up from a dark crystal torpor of pacificatory glissandos. The music effectively levitates, pure without being empty-headed, imbued with a candour typical of its creator's approach to art in general.
Only a guitar and a concertina were used along with the usual tape work on Strange Artifact, but don't let the simple structure of these improvisations fool you: Tate carefully calibrates his timbres in a morass of shortwaves, alternating airy concertina fragments and detuned guitar, sometimes raising the background disturbance level to help him achieve an electroacoustic vibe while maintaining the in-the-moment freedom of unadulterated experimentation. Further confirmation that Darren Tate is one of the most open and sincere soundscapers, well above the legions of nonentities on a bandwagon that's really become too easy to jump on.—MR

Andrea Ermke
Zarek 09

Zarek 08
Ignaz Schick, who runs the Zarek label, was (is still?) a member of Berlin's Phosphor collective and the trio Perlonex (with Burkhard Beins and Jörg Maria Zeger), but has recently distanced himself somewhat from the chilly lowercase aesthetic that characterised Phosphor's debut album on Potlatch. These two latest outings from Zarek represent a move away from the introvert asceticism of Petit Pale, Schick's earlier outing with Andrea Neumann, towards a noisier outside world. Berlin-based Andrea Ermke's Pike – she seems to have a thing about fish.. the last track of hers I came across was "Fish In A Box" on the excellent Charhizma compilation Labor (either that or it's a homage to Ian Lavender's character in the cult BBC comedy series Dads Army, though I seriously doubt it) – is a splendidly active 20-minute piece using sampler, minidisc and field recordings. Gritty clusters and oppressive hums combine with gasps, sighs, roaring traffic, dripping taps and slamming doors to produce a rich and rewarding listening experience. File this one alongside Joel Stern and Michael Northam's Wormwood on Ground Fault. Watch out for the surprise ending too while you're at it.

If Pike has its nasty spots, Quatervois is unremittingly raw and heavy going – and none the worse for it either. Iovae (aka Cincinatti-based Ron Orovitz) also deserves an outing on Erik Hoffman's Ground Fault imprint as one of the USA's more adventurous noisicians. These five tracks, whose titles, like Toshiya Tsunoda's, basically tell you all you need to know ("plastic water cooler and drum kit", "air-rifle and wine bottles", "three tone-generator oscillators channelled through reverb boxes", "solar radio emissions with telemetry / morse code" and – my favourite – "machine gun assortment courtesy of Knob Creek Range, Fort Knox, Kentucky"). The music ranges from the abstract ("Linn Drum machine with oscillators") to the viscerally damaging ("air-rifle and wine bottles" is great if you're feeling pissed off with the world but don't want to vent your fury on your prized possessions), and the great thing is that the whole album clocks in at well under half an hour, meaning you can listen to it twice as often.—DW

Janek Schaefer/Philip Jeck
Asphodel ASP 2026
I must confess a personal predisposition for Janek Schaefer's obscure meanders, previously captured in fantastic recordings – see his website on how to get hold of them – but this collaboration with Philip Jeck, though not without its moments, is unfortunately on a slightly lower level. Songs for Europe sounds like two expert record manipulators on the job almost because their notoriety demanded it. The sounds are nice, the assembling is well done as usual but the whole package lacks mystery, nostalgia, those melancholy reminiscences of unbearable torment that – mixed with innovative droning and sapient subtractive processes – are the hallmark of Schaefer's best work. Philip Jeck's previous albums, though exalted by many, have never had a great impact on my emotional system – the Stoke turntablist is certainly honest in his approach but everything I've heard has a "been there, done that" aura that still prevents me from fully appreciating his musical persona. Which is why he comes out of this record more or less unscathed, while I'm left hoping that Janek will return to his usual form soon. If you want to listen to his tops, rewind a few frames and get hold of a copy of Comae – I always sneak in a compliment to Robert Hampson wherever I can.—MR

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