APRIL News 2005 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Nate Dorward, Vid Jeraj, TJ Norris, Nicholas Rice, Massimo Ricci, Dan Warburton:

Special Double Issue!

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Improvised Music from Japan 2004 / Haco
If, Bwana
Sun Ra / Albert Ayler
On ErstLive:
Keith Rowe & Burkhard Beins / Rowe, Nakamura, Lehn & Schmickler / Burkhard Stangl & Christof Kurzmann / Fennesz, Sachiko M, Otomo, Rehberg
Reissue This:
Keith Tippett
At Carnegie Hall: Boulez, Birtwistle, Dutilleux, MacMillan
Nathan Hubbard's Skeleton Key Orchestra / Sirone Bang Ensemble / Wally Shoup / Frieze of Life / Dominic Duval & Joe McPhee / Peggy Lee Band /
Freedom of the City 2004 / No Idea Festival / Günter Müller & Steinbrüchel / Sinistri / Franz Hautzinger / Manfred Hofer / Rodrigues, Rodrigues, Thieke & Santos
Asmus Tietchens / Anti Group / Mirror / Beequeen / BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa / Xabier Erkizia / Dave Phillips / L/A/B
Last month

At Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall has recently organised several birthday celebrations for the older modernists, among them Harrison Birtwistle and Pierre Boulez. The three concerts of their music at the end of January demonstrated why the two composers have formed a strong alliance in recent years; both are deeply concerned with revolutionising the classical tradition, but whereas Birtwistle’s music is dominated by distance and separation, Boulez’s output is controlled by a sense of overarching unity. In terms of thematic development, both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages: Boulez’s unity can lead to monotony, but also to a searching development of the material, whereas Birtwistle’s distances create quirky exchanges occasionally lacking in dramatic direction. Both the Boulez works featured by the London Symphony Orchestra on January 27th in Stern Hall unfortunately failed to showcase the more interesting aspects of his approach, despite the composer’s formidable presence on the podium. Livre pour cordes is an arrangement of a piece Boulez wrote in his early twenties, Livre pour quatuor, itself an adaptation of Webernian techniques revealing little of Boulez’s mature stylistic voice. As in the earliest Stockhausen pieces, complex gestures succeed one another with no real attempt at dramatic coherence. Dérive 2, performed on January 29th in Stern Hall, is infinitely more masterful and personal, but, as its title suggests, feels too derivative of the composer’s previous work. Composed as a belated 80th birthday present for Elliott Carter, it features an extremely flexible serial technique in which rhythmic and melodic cells contract and expand, allowing for a broad range of development throughout its 25-minute duration. Carter’s procedures are obviously very much to the fore, but the use of rhythm and polyphony also recalls Ligeti, another recognizable influence on Boulez’s music since the 1970s. However, Dérive 2 takes few real steps forward, unlike the electro-acoustics in Anthèmes 2 or the all-encompassing drama of Sur Incises. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the piece is the ensemble it's scored for: trios of winds and strings play off a combination of two percussion instruments (marimba and vibraphone) and two other instruments with strings (piano and harp). The dialogue between them opens and closes with a single note on a horn, which is the only independent element in the piece.

Like much of Boulez’s work, timbre is organized according to strict oppositions, which is certainly not the case with Birtwistle, as the concert devoted to his music on January 31st in Zankel Hall sought to demonstrate. In fact, the first item in the program was entitled Five Distances for Five Instruments, which instantly betrayed the composer’s anarchic personal stamp. The combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn was handled in a deliberately rough and somewhat inconclusive manner, developed in the beautiful word painting of the second item, Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker, scored for soprano and cello. If Five Distances was closer to Ligeti, Nine Settings was a definite homage to Kurtág. Both are recent works, and now that Birtwistle’s style has mellowed slightly his debt to the vocal music of Britten is all the more clear. This was heard to best advantage in the third item, The Woman and the Hare, partly because the players who took part in the concert were clearly more comfortable working in larger groups: some of the runs in Five Distances were fairly hit-and-miss, while the performance of the Nine Settings lacked the delicately differentiated character which a work of this type needs more than anything else. The Woman and the Hare, however, was beautifully coordinated by conductor Brad Lubman and performed with real verve by every member of the ensemble, including soprano Susan Narucki, who had seemed a little exposed during the Settings. The fourth and final item in the program, Tragoedia, the piece that made Birtwistle’s name during the 1960s, was played as naturally as if it were Beethoven.

These three events could not have contrasted more sharply with two performances of symphonies by Dutilleux and MacMillan by the Cleveland Orchestra and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s respectively, on February 4th and 10th in Stern Hall. (Donald Runnicles’ conducting in the MacMillan was superior to Franz Welser-Möst’s in the Dutilleux: despite the latter's attentiveness to rhythm and balance and the excellence of the Cleveland, Runnicles proved a far better motivator and clearly relished every moment of colour and melody.) Dutilleux represents the opposite end of mainstream French music to Boulez, just as MacMillan represents the opposite end of British contemporary music to Birtwistle, so it was fascinating to observe that the differences between the two bore certain similarities to the differences between their avant-garde compatriots. Once more, the principle of unity in Dutilleux in critical: both he and Boulez have been influenced by Proust in their use of recurring features and in “doubling” features which already exist, either through echo or opposition. Hence the title of Dutilleux’s Second Symphony, “Le Double”, which pits a twelve-piece ensemble against a larger orchestra of twenty instrumental parts plus strings. The larger orchestra itself contains doubles (for instance, the flutes are divided into two parts and also manage to double the piccolos) but the result is far more traditional than the ultra-modernism of Boulez. Ultimately “Le Double” is more a descendant of late Honegger than of late Stravinsky. This doesn't prevent the strong influence of Russian culture emerging, most notably in the title, taken from Dostoyevsky, and in the mournful slow movement, in which Dutilleux quotes Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and echoes some of the ghostlier harpsichord sequences in The Rake’s Progress.
Similarly, it is difficult to accuse the MacMillan Second Symphony of lacking contemporary relevance, but this is generated by a more retrospective aesthetic than Birtwistle’s (there is even a microtonal pastiche quote of Tristan towards the end). Like the Birtwistle selection, the piece is entertainingly episodic, but, unlike Birtwistle, it's fairly incoherent: MacMillan himself states in the program note that “Taking my lead from composers such as Boulez and Berio I have built this work on an earlier, shorter piece” – but so did many composers before Boulez (Bach’s B minor Mass being a critical example). References to the avant-garde can't disguise the fact that this symphony, like the Dutilleux, is entertaining but unadventurous.—NR

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Nathan Hubbard
Circumvention 039A-B 2CD
Any large ensemble recording is an ambitious undertaking, but a double CD featuring no fewer than 36 musicians (on instruments as diverse as prepared pianos, pipe organs, harps, laptops and dopplerophones, whatever they are) is nothing less than heroic. Not only that, but this one cooks from beginning to end, and stands as one of the most vibrant documents of the lively San Diego new music scene. Nathan Hubbard shares percussion duties with, amongst others, Harris Eisenstadt, Curtis Glatter, James Burton and Jon Szanto, but he's no slouch when it comes to writing and arranging. The eight extended – I mean extended: "Raincastle" lasts 34'19" and "A Murder Of Crows" 36'22" – compositions are superbly crafted and performed with great musicality and attention to detail. The whole history of jazz / improvised music large ensemble work is referenced, from the filigree flutes of Gil Evans to the epic arching lines of Alan Silva's Celestrial Communication Orchestra (comparisons might also be made with Globe Unity, Scott Rosenberg's Creative Orchestra Music and Coat Cooke's NOW Orchestra, not to mention Harry Partch and the early Mothers of Invention), but this is no mere exercise in stylistic homage. Incorporating field recordings, poetry (Shannon Perkins on "Sleeping Against Other Warnings" and Hubbard himself on "Poltergeist - for Albert Ayler") and the electronics of Trummerflora mainstays Marcelo Radulovich and Marcos Fernandes, not to mention some highly creative post-production – damn, you're paying for a studio, you might as well use it – Hubbard provides not just a snapshot but a whole photo album of today's American creative improvised music. Unlike Silva's epic 4CD HR57 Treasure Box, which inevitably comes across as an All Star Band (you find yourself constantly referring to the liners to find out who's blowing, if it isn't immediately apparent), nobody's out to showboat in the Skeleton Key Orchestra, though there are some wicked solos: Gabe Sundy's gritty baritone in the opening "Is That You (Earl)?", Ellen Weller's slinky flute on "Sleeping.." and Ward Baxter's sexy sandalwood tenor on the same track, to name but three. Sure, like life, there are some longueurs – "A Murder of Crows" in particular goes through a sticky patch (not surprisingly given how strongly it kicks off) – but there are some truly delicious moments along the way. Check out how the gnarly double bass trio towards the end of "Raincastle" segues into Jon Garner's exquisite guitar solo, or how the raw jungle funk that opens "East on 53rd Street" slips into some polished studio funk (yo! Eddie Harris eat your heart out!). It's a huge, dense set and one that will keep your ears busy, your feet tapping and your neighbours howling with joy until summertime. Reach for the key.—DW

Sirone Bang Ensemble
Silkheart SHCD 155
"Jupiter's Future" reads the title of the first of the six tracks on this fine recent outing by violinist Billy Bang, bassist Sirone, Charles Gayle on alto and tenor saxes, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, but you don't need to have a degree in Sun Ra to identify "Space Is The Place" (interesting how several members of the first and second generations of free jazz musicians are quite good at "adopting" other people's work.. "Lonely Woman" pops up on a soon-to-be-released Sunny Murray set on Eremite, and fans of Arthur Doyle might be forgiven for thinking he wrote "Nature Boy"). The Ra thing doesn't last long: after a brief solo from Sorey, a new theme kicks in, before the band lays out again to let Gayle get on with business. Configuration marks a welcome return to form (return full stop) for Gayle, and it's a shame Bang couldn't have got this band on the bill at the recent Sons d'Hiver festival (reviewed here last month) instead of those sweet but sorry-assed Vietnamese and the stolid rhythm section he brought along. Anyway, enough of that. This session was recorded live on November 9th last year at CBGB's Gallery, and from the sound of it all four gents are happy to be down on the Bowery, especially Bang, who delights in the kind of rough extended techniques playing that he studiously avoided in that aforementioned gig. Which in no way means Configuration is hardcore avant-garde – far from it: "Freedom Flexibility" swings wickedly (you'll even forgive Bang for quoting "I Got Rhythm"), and Sirone's "We Are Not Alone, But We Are Few" joins a line of melancholy free jazz ballads stretching back to Ornette's Town Hall Concert. And as the set progresses it gets better and better: Bang's solo on "I Remember Albert" might be the most powerful thing he's ever released, the interplay between the musicians on the following "Notre Dame De La Garde" is magnificent, and things get so seriously funky on the closing title track you might be forgiven for thinking it was called "Conflagration."—DW

Wally Shoup
Leo CD LR 412
In David Keenan's recent brief but informative article on Wally Shoup in The Wire (nice to see that Shoup is still regarded as an up-and-coming youngster like most of the other characters who are accorded one of that magazine's shorter features), the alto saxophonist recalls his childhood in the South during the 50s and 60s, listing his formative experiences – Little Willie John, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and other "screamers and shouters" – and influences: Coltrane, Sanders and Ayler, of course, but also electric Miles, the Stooges and even, hell yeah, the Hampton Grease Band. Though there's no direct reference to the 12-bar blues anywhere in the eleven tracks on offer on Blue Purge, Shoup's latest outing on Leo after the splendid Live At Tonic and last year's Confluxus, and not the slightest hint of a blues licks or groove in the fragmented, tight splatter of rhythm section Reuben Radding (bass) and Bob Rees (drums), the music's direct from-the-hip-to-the-gut approach is very much in line with the music Shoup grew up with. Shoup, like his fellow road warriors Marco Eneidi, Mark Whitecage and Paul Flaherty (one could also include Jack Wright, though Wright turned his back on free jazz as such some while ago), has had the good sense to follow his own no(i)se throughout his career, the result being his music, in steadfastly avoiding to be neatly pigeonholed, packaged and marketed like some high fat trashy snacks, has stayed fresh. The downside to that is that it's not Shoup who's playing the major league festival circuit but other so-called free jazz giants who have quite happily sold themselves at least half way down the river, producing cheesy HipHop crossover rubbish with second division rappers. Not naming names, you know who you are. Strip away the flashy production and the "slammin' beats" and there's little left to chew on, though, whereas there's enough protein on Blue Purge to keep you going strong until the next Wally Shoup outing, whenever that is. Buy one of those CD players that can take four discs at a time, load this baby up with Cold Bleak Heat's It's Magnificent But It Isn't War, Marco Eneidi / Lisle Ellis / Peter Valsamis' American Roadwork and Mark Whitecage's No Respect and let all four play on eternal loop until the summer solstice and see if your life isn't better for it.—DW

Frieze of Life
FOL Records (no catalogue number)

I’m not sure where on earth the phrase “nuclear frog pond” comes from – probably leader Greg Sinibaldi’s own head – but the band name is a lift from Edvard Munch, which perhaps explains the music’s surprising darkness of texture and mood, very different from what one might expect from a four-horns-plus-bass-and-drums jazz ensemble. Listeners may be reminded of Dave Douglas’s jazz-goes-to-the-Old-World aesthetic, and Sinibaldi, like Douglas, includes a few modern-classical arrangements in the program (in this case, some Bartók). Pieces like “Desire” and “Code Name 6” are built up layer by layer in the manner of a round, until all six instruments are present and accounted for; and even the collectively credited pieces – wholly improvised, I assume – tend to be slowmoving, close-voiced canons, each horn taking turns to throw a new note into the pot. It’s a strong and unusual disc, with excellent work from all concerned (Sinibaldi on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Mark Taylor on soprano, alto and tenor, Chris Stover on trombone, Jay Roulston on trumpet, Geoff Harper on bass and Byron Vannoy on drums). These are players who really listen to each other – it’s impressive how they spin intricate chorales out of thin air. But I’m also left feeling the music’s not quite there yet, for several reasons, first and foremost being the concentration on sonorous, melancholy canons to the point of redundancy – I could have used more explosive moments like “Moose Knuckles”, “Hitler’s Café” and the last half of “Claude et Eric”, where the tasteful after-you interaction is ditched and they all just jump in. Elsewhere the emphasis on the horns makes the bass and drums seem underused and occasionally superfluous – on “Consolation” for instance the drummer isn’t really given enough to do – and many of the pieces lack internal contrast, or don’t go far enough past their initial premises. That’s a long list of cavils, yet on balance I’d still recommend the disc: such weaknesses are apparent cumulatively over the course of the album, but make little difference to individual tracks’ success. This is smart, unhackneyed music from a band whose future progress will be worth following.—ND

Joe McPhee/Dominic Duval
Drimala DR-04-347-05
Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 was a set of duets between bassist Dominic Duval and saxophonist Mark Whitecage; for this return match Duval is partnered with veteran saxophonist Joe McPhee. (A third volume of Rules pairing Duval with trombonist Steve Swell is slated for release later in the year.) As you’d expect from these longstanding musical partners (together they comprise two-thirds of the hardworking free-jazz ensemble Trio-X) this is a thoroughly sympathetic encounter. The album can be thought of as a loosely organized suite concerning the black American experience: the program includes two improvisations around Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” a reading of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and “Birmingham Sunday,” a memorial to the four children killed in the 1963 bombing of a black Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. The same incident inspired Coltrane’s “Alabama,” and it’s no accident that the one “standard” here is the rarely covered “While My Lady Sleeps,” which Coltrane once cut for Prestige. But despite featuring the odd moment of scrabbling activity, Rules of Engagement has little of Coltrane’s turbulence; it’s quietly thoughtful music, its drama confined to the stark contrast between McPhee’s sombre, plainspoken work on soprano sax and Duval’s slip-sliding bass.—ND

Peggy Lee Band
Spool Line 24
Any investigation of the new music scene in Vancouver will soon turn up the names of the husband and wife team of Dylan van der Schyff (percussion) and Peggy Lee (cello), and Worlds Apart, the latest offering from the Peggy Lee Band, featuring Brad Turner on trumpet, cornet and fluegelhorn, Jeremy Berkman on trombone, Tony Wilson on guitars (joined by Ron Samworth on four tracks) and Andre Lechance on bass is as good a place to start such an investigation as any. Lee and van der Scyff are active as free improvisers, as any John Butcher completist will tell you, and bring its freshness and looseness to bear on nine compositions (all by Lee except for a brief guitar spot by Wilson on "Old One Knows") that marry a fondness for space and texture to elegant and discreet use of complex metres – none of that Ivo Papasov-style blind-'em-with-science flashy stuff here. The music breathes the same country air – that's country as in out of town, not Country as in musical genre – as Bill Frisell and Kenny Wheeler's ECM outings of way back when. The occasional flurries of extended techniques playing nestle comfortably within the composed structures. Perhaps too comfortably – most of the tracks opt for midtempo grooves, and angles tend to be rounded off, with the result that some tracks lose their bite somewhat. The pieces that work best are those that don't bite at all, remaining calm and lyrical instead ("Spells" and "Beekeepers' Club").—DW

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Various Artists
Emanem 4215 2CD
Another year, another Freedom Of The City festival, another Emanem best of compilation of the proceedings.. The quality is as uniformly high as in preceding years, with fine performances from all concerned, but a cursory glance at Gordon Humphrey's photos reminds us that these guys - and gals, though there are only three of them -aren't getting any younger. Has free improvisation become a music for grown-ups, for "those who know", pipe-smoking father figures peering over their spectacles at their spotty pierced offspring's dirty Marilyn Manson T-shirts and sighing "one day you'll understand, my dear.."? Maybe the role model for today's avant-garde teen is Christian Fennesz, in which case FOTC organisers – Emanem's Martin Davidson, Eddie Prévost and Evan Parker – better give up hope of ever filling the Conway Hall to capacity. Anyway, it's something to ponder while you re-read Wayne Spencer's review of the festival while checking out John Russell's Quaqua quintet with Philipp Wachsmann, Phil Minton, Georg Wolf and Stefan Keune, in an entertaining 22'22" slab of vintage quality improv. Similarly, the three solo offerings from Paul Rutherford are as good as they always are, the duos featuring Clive Bell (on sipsi, shakuhachi, pi saw flute, mini-khene and Cretan pipes) and Sylvia Hallett (on viola, bicycle wheel, saw, jews harp, digital delays and, er, breath) are as colourful as their instrumentation, and Morgan Guberman (vocals) and Gail Brand (trombone) provide more of the fun and games that characterised their acclaimed Ballgames & Crazy (Emanem 4103). Pianist Chris Burn convenes a half-Australian version of his Ensemble, with Jim Denley (flute), Clare Cooper (guzheng) and Will Guthrie (amplified percussion) joining regulars Burn, John Butcher and Matt Hutchinson in two elegant if somewhat restrained offerings. So far so good – but the best is yet to come, in the form of 35 minutes of free flamenco folly from guitarist Roger Smith and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo (since when did the Moholo double up?) who took everyone by surprise, including recording engineer Sebastien Lexier, by launching into action right after their soundcheck. Moholo might be best known as the muscle behind the great South African expat jazz groups of the 1960s and 70s, but his lightness of touch is just as impressive. Hats off to Davidson for luring the elusive Smith out of his kitchen and setting up a full-length date with Moholo, The Butterfly And The Bee, to be released on Emanem in the near future – watch this space.—DW

Various Artists
Coincident NI 001 / Spring Garden Music 011 / Ten Pounds To The Sound 002 2CD
There's a tendency for some people back here in Old Europe to get all snobbish about free improvised music, in the same way that certain older American musicians look down their noses at Europeans who play free jazz (or any kind of jazz, for that matter). Over the past decade pedestals have duly been erected to European Improv Grandmasters, some of whom sit on them quite happily (Evan Parker), others apparently not giving a toss about the idea (Derek Bailey) or too busy to bother with it at all (Peter Brötzmann). Dying was certainly the worst thing that could have happened to John Stevens, because he can't jump off his anymore; well-intentioned and honest tributes to his pioneering work at the Little Theatre with the SME have helped reinforce the myth that Stevens was not only an important figure in the music but that without him it wouldn't have happened at all. I never met the man but I can imagine him coming out with a tasty mouthful of local expletives in response to that.
Across the pond, the idols of free jazz – Coltrane, Ayler, Taylor, Ornette – are placed so securely on their plinths that not even an 8.9 quake followed by an Indian Ocean tsunami could knock them off. American free improvised music, on the other hand, has never really had one (or more) central heroic father figure, nor has it been specifically associated with one (or more) particular city in the way that jazz has – think New York, Kansas City, New Orleans... As Ned Rothenberg explains in his recent PT interview with Sasha Burov, the musicians associated with NYC's Downtown scene remained not only open to but wildly enthusiastic about music other than free improv, and felt no compelling need to push against the ideological and historical weight of contemporary composition, Great Black Music, or any other kind of music by spouting quasi-purist dogma about non-idiomatic improvisation. In direct (and curious) contrast to the all-encompassing conformity associated with the globalism of American multinationals, improvised music in the USA has consistently sought out the margins, remaining steadfastly and proudly underground, a guerrilla operation par excellence.

"No Idea 2004 began on a Thursday night, ignoring the usual rule that there should be at least as many in the audience as on the stage," writes alto and soprano saxophonist Jack Wright about the improv festival whose highlights make up this double CD set. One imagines that Wright has ignored that rule many times in his career as an improviser – his indefatigable enthusiasm for playing and his apparent willingness to jump into a car and drive hundreds of miles just to do so (something not many Europeans have ever understood, the late Peter Kowald being a notable exception) has certainly made him a hero for the emerging generation of American improvisers. Wright has recently been reestablishing contacts with European improvisers too, notably the French saxophonist Michel Doneda (if their album from between on SOS with Tatsuya Nakatani isn't on your shelves already, for Chrissakes do something about it), not to mention dozens of younger improvisers in France and Germany, two of whom, percussionist Michael Griener and flautist Sabine Vogel, crossed over the pond to take part in the splendidly-named No Idea festival, two legs of which are documented here, recorded in Austin TX between May 20th and 22nd, and the following day down the road in Houston. They joined 21 other American musicians, including Wright, for the kind of event the saxophonist revels in. "Most sets were put together ad hoc, based on the assumption, somewhere carved in stone, that any two or more improvisers thrown together should be able to have and communicate a musical experience."
Amen. Wright is spot on when he describes the ad hoc groupings as having "real sparkle and freshness, and evolution within the piece." Examples of it abound throughout this 2CD set, from the crackly scrabble and squiggle of the electronics in the opening "Beach Party" (featuring Linda Gale Aubry on electronics and samplers, Maria Chavez on turntables, Chris Cogburn on percussion and Bryan Eubanks on soprano sax and analog tape) to the grey granite of bassist Mike Bullock's trio with trombonist Tucker Dulin and percussionist Nick Hennies (three other cuts from their set have been released on Manifold). Griener and Vogel import a touch of Berlin-style reductionism, and Wright plays along but soon muddies the water in classic Jack style with some dirty growls and gritty multiphonics. Guitarist Kurt Newman leads Dulin and Vogel back into more traditionally busy improv territory, followed by a fabulously inventive quartet featuring the four percussionists present – Cogburn, Hennies, Griener and Brian Ramisch. Bay Area-based clarinet virtuoso Matt Ingalls teams up with Newman and trombonist Dave Dove (let's not get all droolingly nostalgic about mid 1970s Rutherford and Bailey – that was then, this is now and this rocks too), before revealing more of his devastating chops in another trio with Wright and Eubanks. No kittens being born in boxes here, as Tom Djll memorably described 2000's Signs of Life, on which he played with Ingalls, Wright and Bhob Rainey – instead a fluidity and freshness that many Europeans would do well to pay attention to, all too often snagged as they are in reductionism's net of whooshes and gargles interspersed with long pregnant silences. There's plenty of space on the two tracks Ingalls appears on with the Bullock / Dulin / Hennies trio (opening the Houston disc, though it was actually the final set played that evening, which began with the Dove / Griener / Newman / Wright quartet and continued with "Strand Party" – take the personnel of "Beach Party" above and add Sabine Vogel's flutes), but there's also an intensity, a sense of drama that Americans openly embrace and Europeans often snootily dismiss. Of course, that's a horrifying generalisation – there's as much passion and fire in European improvised music today as there is austerity and clinical precision in some areas of American improv – but the cumulative effect of listening to these two discs tends to reinforce it. Compared to the music on the Freedom Of The City set reviewed above, which one instinctively feels was handpicked to showcase the "best" (i.e. most rounded, mature, structurally coherent and technically impressive) music performed at that festival, No Idea is more endearingly chaotic and sprawling, willing to accept a few lows along with the many highs. It's a great set, and one that anyone interested in trying to chart the future course of improvised music – on either side of the Atlantic or for that matter the Pacific – should check out at the earliest opportunity.—DW

Günter Müller / Steinbrüchel
List L6
They call this stuff "EAI", which stands for "electro acoustic improvisation", but, as if to illustrate how dumb that is as a label (looks like we're stuck with it though), there's as much composition – i.e. post-production reworking – as improvisation involved on this latest splendid outing from Günter Müller (who, if you wanted to carry on playing silly buggers, you could probably describe as the Godfather of EAI, since they've already found someone to occupy the Pope and Messiah slots) and Ralph Steinbrüchel, one of a number of young Swiss lions in the field. Come to think of it, are there any lions in EAI? Large pussycats maybe, since the music never really roars so much as purrs most of the time. By now you're supposed to know that Müller plays iPod, Minidiscs, selected percussion and electronics and Steinbrüchel laptop; if you don't, I'm telling you, because this info doesn't appear on the disc itself, the outer cover of which is a Taylor Deupree photograph of the kind of building His Royal Earness Prince Charles used to describe as "a monstrous carbuncle". It seems like shots of dull, functional, rectilinear modern architecture are in fashion these days, but fortunately the music on Perspectives (not the most imaginative title in the world either, but never mind) is much more rewarding. Messrs Müller and Steinbrüchel went on a little tour together and recorded concerts at Cave 12 in Geneva (two sets), Stralau 68 in Berlin, Confluences in Paris, Gare du Nord in Basel and the Angelica Festival in Bologna. Each then reworked the recordings into finished pieces – Müller handles the odd-numbered tracks, Steinbrüchel the even, which gives listeners an opportunity to explore the similarities – or lack thereof – between the versions. Completing the baker's dozen, a thirteenth track recorded in Paris adds List boss guitarist / laptopper Hervé Boghossian, who also handles remixing and reworking. Both Müller and Steinbrüchel are pretty prolific these days, so if your budget doesn't stretch to investing in their complete discographies, you might like to know that Perspectives is perhaps Steinbrüchel's strongest outing to date. Then again, having just written that, I'm forced to ask myself why I actually believe it to be the case, since on the surface there's very little difference between the music here and other similar recent outings from the same musicians (thinking of Steinbrüchel's ATAK release with Jason Kahn and Kim Cascone reviewed here last month, or Müller and Kahn's Blinks on For4Ears, or, going back in time a bit, last year's Momentan.def on Cut featuring Müller, Steinbrüchel and Tomas Korber). Taking its time to evolve, wrapping the listener in blankets of warm, rich layers, it's a kind of sonic hotel bed, always freshly made with crisp white sheets and impeccably folded pillowslips and invariably a little too big and far too soft. Nope, can't quite put my finger on why (can YOU recall the most comfortable hotel bed you've ever slept in? the largest, sure, but I'm talking most comfortable – the point is they're all comfortable..) but I like this one. Nice to see that Hervé Boghossian has abandoned those pesky jewel boxes too, since I'm running out of shelf space here.—DW

Changing your name is a risky business if you operate in a niche market that depends on a small, faithful following of fans, but sometimes groups have no choice in the matter. Panasonic dropped that second "a" when lawyers representing that well-known Japanese multinational starting breathing down their neck, Berlin improv trio Perlon had to add an "-ex" to avoid being confused with a techno outfit of the same name (also German, as it turned out), and I still treasure my LP copy of Massive Attack's first album Blue Lines on which the "Attack" was dropped altogether, lest anyone get the idea that the loose collective of Bristol triphoppers were somehow condoning the Gulf War (the first one). Until recently, Manuele Giannini (guitars, mostly), Alessandro Bocci (computer, sampler), Roberto Bertacchini (drums) and Dino Bramanti (live processing) used to go by the name of Starfuckers, but as the music they make has more to do with improv and free jazz than the grungy irreverence suggested by the venerable expletive, they've recently opted to go with Sinistri instead, replacing the provocative "F word" by a more erudite and subversive allusion to the witchcraft and wizardry traditionally associated with the left-handed. There's nothing sinister about the music, though; never was an album more aptly titled than Free Pulse, because that's exactly what you get throughout, but just try tapping your feet to Bertacchini's disarmingly infectious drumming while you dig the irregular hiccupping, chirpy blasts of wah fuzz and electronic squiggles. The problem is though that that's all you get, all ten tracks following the same pattern, the cumulative effect being a kind of unfulfilled foreplay, a solo or song waiting to happen. Still, it's an enjoyable wait.—DW

Franz Hautzinger
aRtonal aRR08
Back in 1996, trumpeter Franz Hautzinger and sampler virtuoso Helge Hinteregger recorded Bent, a quartet record with London improvisers Oren Marshall and Steve Noble released on Extraplatte. After losing a tooth, Hautzinger took up the ¼-tone trumpet and turned the loss to his advantage, starting a number of distinguished projects ranging from his highly acclaimed solo Gomberg to Regenorchester XIV. Recently, Hautzinger and Hinteregger have founded another quartet, this time with Lebanese improvisers Mazen Kerbaj on trumpet (and uncredited small objects) and Sharif Sehnaoui on guitar. Oriental Space starts with “In The Afternoon”, Sehnaoui’s creaking chilly drone unfolding into the trumpeters' textural duo improvisation. Kerbaj’s long tube trumpet preparations – Rajesh Mehta's solo on HatHut comes to mind – are as compelling as the thick, dense clouds of air Hautzinger pulls through his instrument. Hinteregger’s sense of humour is surprisingly appealing, using samples of Oriental singers and World music. “Goulash” and “Papers from Damascus” are entertaining excursions into space and the details that fill it, with ensemble playing low and reserved; Sehnaoui even plays some chords at the opening of “Noujoum Funk” while the trumpets create a communal passion enriched by naïve Eastern sampledelia. On “Courant d’Air”, however, the trumpets sound as they're attached to Black & Decker saws, and the following “Snow Sensitive Skin” is interrupted by slap-tonguing and noise as Sehnaoui’s trick bag overflows in the background. The Lebanese new breed may be even more experimental than their prolific partners.—VJ

Manfred Hofer
aRtonal aRR09/cha031
Manfred Hofer’s debut CD, on which he plays acoustic double bass, two electric bass guitars and amplifier (!?), is co-released by aRtonal and Charhizma, both labels being enthusiastic champions of new blood in Austrian contemporary music. The liner notes mention that these 13 recordings, mastered in Christoph Amann's studios in Vienna, sometimes gloomy, sometimes naïve but all resolutely minimal and often repetitive (cellist Arnold Haberl, aka Noid, is a frequent Hofer collaborator) are a starting point in finding vocabulary for a work in progress. Which means it will probably take another CD to find out what that story is, as many pieces end just when things are becoming interesting and the tension starting to rise. It's refreshing that Hofer knows when to stop, but we’ll have to wait till volume two before passing judgement.—VJ

Ernesto Rodrigues / Michael Thieke / Guilherme Rodrigues / Carlos Santos
Creative Sources CS 020
Laptopper Carlos Santos is perhaps best known for his work with Paulo Raposo on the Sirr label, as part of the group Vitriol and on Insula Dulcamara. Kreis marks his debut on another Portuguese imprint with which he's become closely associated, Creative Sources. He's joined by CS boss man Ernesto Rodrigues on violin and viola, his son Guilherme Rodrigues on cello and pocket trumpet and Michael Thieke on clarinets on seven tracks of dense (but never muddy) improv. The most striking quality of the album is the uncompromisingly claustrophobic mix, courtesy Santos and Ernesto Rodrigues – Thieke's clarinet isn't so much in yer face as in yer earhole, and the rigorous hardcore extended techniques of Rodrigues père et fils mesh with Santos's electronics to create a seething web of information overload strangely reminiscent of Brian Ferneyhough's Time and Motion Study II (panning the cello to the left and the violin to the right makes a welcome change). Like their fellow improv travellers from the Iberian peninsula, Alfredo Costa Monteiro and Ferran Fages, aka Cremaster, with whom of course they've performed frequently (the world of improvised music is a very small one), the four musicians here have escaped from reductionism's eternal pianissimo cul-de-sac by climbing over the wall into an area of deserted wasteland once described by Eric Cordier as "soft noise". And there's lots to explore there.—DW

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Asmus Tietchens
Die Stadt DS80

The Anti Group
Die Stadt DS67

Die Stadt DS78
You wouldn't believe how fascinating ugliness can be, sometimes. This becomes brutally clear when listening to the old-fashioned drum machines that constitute the skeleton of much of Asmus Tietchens' Litia, originally composed in 1982 and 1983. At that time, Tietchens' interest in synthetic structures was nearing its end, yet even so this album is spectacularly weird: fake disco rhythms go on for minutes lodging robotic melodies full of ironic twists, pulses and pseudo riffs à la Devo coupled with flows of dissonance, bass lines predating Tietchens' dive into Industrial territory that immediately followed this last release on Sky. The extreme contrast between Tietchens' creative overflow and the limitations of the machines he used (which he describes in the liner notes) led to an apocalyptic warp of conventional synth music: there's no lyricism or serene meditation here, only a cold, detached look at the pointless beauties of pop – don't forget this came out at the beginning of the MTV era when Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and the New Romantics ruled the charts. The bonus tracks – always a thrill on the Die Stadt reissues – include music from the rare 10" Rattenheu and other archival material, contributing to 64-plus minutes of utterly destabilizing, abnormal yet highly intelligent music in which, as is often the case with Asmus Tietchens, substance prevails over appearance.
Also up to Die Stadt's usual high standards is the 16'30" CD EP by the Anti Group (it says in the press release that Andrew McKenzie aka Hafler Trio, M. Hogg and R. Baker "may" be the operating brains behind it all), which could just as well have borrowed the title of an old Djam Karet record, Suspension and Displacement. Starting from silence, an incomprehensible murmur moves the still air around the ears while a repeated muffled piano chord establishes a slow pattern over which alien funeral choirs, blistering frequencies and schizoid electronic oscillations become more and more dazzling, until everything stops in time to leave the last 30 seconds to a series of belchy outbursts that have absolutely nothing to do with the pretty ethereal atmospheres heard up to that point.
Equally dedicated to thorough decentralization of any known procedure, Mirror's Christoph Heemann and Andrew Chalk are once again joined by Jim O'Rourke on Still Valley, a new magic potion of illusions (vinyl only, soon to be followed by a different CD version), whose flux is centred on a cyclical figure, a sort of flanging chorus made from undecipherable sources – a synthesizer or just looped guitar harmonics? The musicians scrutinize silence while gently padding the surroundings with electronic lumps of morphing drones, swells and voids that take up residence in our cerebral waiting rooms, trying to communicate something that our intelligence struggles to understand, converting them instead into broken codes cancelling meaning and feeling. Inscrutable and magnificent.—MR

Important Imprec 044
My eyebrows are in a twist. Is this Beequeen? The sleeve says so, and the players are the usual suspects, Frans de Waard and Freek Kinkelaar, though what's up with the feathery vocals (by Malou Houtman) and the folky guitar lines on "Sad Sheep"? Essence of Cocteau Twins, Lush and other 4AD acts of yore inlaid with warped sinewaves and other layers of familiar percussion.. in the oasis I hear dizzying church organs and hairy things going bump in the night. Marie-Louise Munck, whose heavenly voice recalls the more sentimental moments on Sinead O'Connor's debut album, ushers in Nick Drake's "Black Eyed Dog" as if it were the sequel to Kum Ba Ya. For a moment, you think there may be a contact mic in her mouth, capturing her swallowing between words. De Waard and Kinkelaar are up to something here, something far removed from the rest of their catalogue, but still in line with other experiments, distilling fine spirits in their noise mill: the beautiful cello on the title track rendered palely by Feiko Halbertsma like a future standard in the making, the surprisingly perky tribal percussion on "Blackburn" fading quickly to a jangly stretched reverse rhythm. The biggest surprise is the bloated beat of "Buzzbag Drive" with its jazzy frills and funky olde Steely Dan-ish laissez faire cheekiness. This has to be the first Beequeen that I may need to listen to a dozen times before I can truly warm to it – but there's something there behind the layers of melancholy, a kind of tease, a hazy sunshine just ready to break.—TJN

BJ Nilsen & Stilluppsteypa
Helen Scarsdale HMS004
The first edition of this album is already something of a collectors' item, as Helen Scarsdale's in-house designer (and frequent Wire contributor) Jim Haynes prepared just 300 handmade copper foil inserts with the album title and track info silk-screened on them. They look very nice indeed, even if they're stuck in a standard jewel box, but to be honest I'd have preferred a free bottle of Brennevin myself, Brennevin being a seriously headfucking potato alcohol normally bottled in suspicious-looking black glass and highly popular in Iceland, which is where electronicians Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson and Helgi Thorsson aka Stilluppsteypa come from. They're joined by BJ Nilsen, who hails from Sweden – where they also produce some pretty wicked liquor, but that's probably beside the point – on five (there only seem to be four marked on the copper plate) tracks of utter majesty. Don't you dare say electronic music can't move you to tears; these huge, spacious glowing structures are sombre, magnificent and exquisitely constructed (and I haven't got the faintest idea what their titles mean.. something to do with the booze, who knows?). And I thought that irr. app. (ext.)'s Ozeanische Gefühle was a hard act for Helen Scarsdale to follow. Like Matt Waldron (irr. app. (ext.) to you), our three protagonists here have something that's all too often lacking in today's boot-the-Mac-click-open-soundfile-and-let-it-rip-and-while-it's-playing-I-can-answer-email (just joking) electronic music culture: damn good ears. They probably don't have much liver left if the press release is to be believed, so make sure you get your copy of Vikinga Brennevin before stocks dry up altogether. (If you miss out on Jim's copper plate, don't worry – the music will be the same on the second edition.)—DW

Xabier Erkizia
Antifrost Afro 2026
If you use that little "find it" search engine box thingy on the home page of this site and type in the word "austere" don't be surprised if your computer crashes. Seems like it's one of the words I end up using all over the place, far too often. Don't think I haven't tried scouting round thesauruses (thesauri?) for alternatives. Austere's a cool adjective though, meaning abstinent (abstemious, ascetic, chaste, continent, economical, puritanical, refraining, self-denying, self-disciplined, sober, straight-laced, strict, subdued, unrelenting), grim (bald, bare, bare-bones, barren, bleak, clean, dour, plain, primitive, rustic, severe, simple, spare, Spartan, stark, subdued, unadorned, unembellished) and severe (ascetic, astringent, cold, earnest, exacting, forbidding, formal, grave, grim, hard, harsh, inexorable, inflexible, obdurate, rigid, rigorous, serious, sober, solemn, sombre, stern, stiff, strict, stringent, unfeeling, unrelenting.. thanks Mr Roget for all that), and, overused though it might be, it's spot on to describe the music released on Ilios's Antifrost label. Xabier Erkizia's Entresol is a slab of vintage Antifrost user-unfriendly electronica, whose harshness often recalls the work his fellow Basque laptopper Mattin (yep, it's a small world, and the two have performed and recorded together). Coming in a plain cover, uniformly dark grey except for the name and album title which are in light grey (the inside reverses the trend.. my copy came with a "Promotional Copy Not For Sale" stamped across the inner spine, as if anybody would ever feel like buying such an austere – there I go again – looking thing), its 39 minutes seriously challenge the label name: it's –5° here today with a dull, cold leaden sky and this music's frostiness is absolutely perfect. Questions of temperature aside, it's right in line with the Suffer / Enjoy aesthetic of the label. If you're already familiar with other releases on Antifrost by Ilios, Mattin, Daniel Menche and especially the magnificent North & South Neutrino (Lasse Marhaug and Alan Courtis), you'll know what to expect. If, however, you need some bright chirpy techno to accompany the alcohol-free party you're throwing to celebrate your 17 year old sister's passing her driving test, you'd better leave this one well alone. Pass the Brennevin, motherfucker.—DW

Dave Phillips
Ground Fault GF 031
There's something instantly intimidating about popping a CD into your player and seeing 99 tracks flash up, especially when the first of them (called "wec") is completely silent. Quiet rain begins to fall during track two ("an"), but that distant thunder should put you on your guard. The deluge subsides a little, but all hell breaks loose on track 4 ("rut") – for 11 seconds. The first sign of retching appears in track 6 ("zeo"), and it returns on track 9 ("ti"), alternating with some particularly vicious bangs and crashes. Par for the course for Phillips, whose previous work with Fear Of God and the actionist activists Gruppe Schimpfluch is ideal for anyone who needs to be forcibly evicted from their apartment in a hurry. The novelty of IIIII is the element of surprise, as there's at least as much silence as noise on the disc, but the novelty soon wears off and you wish that Dave would just finish emptying his stomach once and for all and go get himself a Milk of Magnesia. Doubly frustrating is the fact that what noise there is tends to come in short sharp bursts – no chance of a good ol' Merz-style extended blowout here. (There are a few exceptions, notably the final track "is" and number 78, "po" – incidentally, if you're wondering about the cryptic track titles, you need only put them together and they read as follows: "we can scrutinize our motives and impulses we can know why we act as we do we can approach a point at which our actions are the results of our choices when we are conscious everything we do will be done for reasons we can know at that point we will be authors of our lives this may seem fantastical and so it is".) If the idea of the disc is to antagonise, it deserves five stars; if, though, the name of the game is enjoyment – ah, how old-fashioned that sounds – you might want to steer clear, unless your idea of enjoyment is having someone vomit in your ear before shooting you in the head with a nail gun.—DW

Ground Fault GF 032
"Live improvisations on electronics and mechanics treated with scientifically approved methods; together with composed sections interpolated with sounds of science; illustrates the musical sounds of the human psyche." Hmm, sounds like L/A/B – that's Laukka (Petri), Aneheim (Jonas D) and Bjorkk (Henrik N) – have got a thing about science, described elsewhere as "the dominating mythology of our time". What are those "scientifically approved methods"? Approved by whom? The trio's quest for the "darker form of beauty that we associate with profundity and truth" certainly raises as many questions as answers, first and foremost being what drugs are these chaps using? The music is a curiously accelerated history of electronic music from 1950s sci-fi to post-Pole dub, via Pierre Henry's Futuristie, Tenney-like simulated Shepard tones, the 1980s cassette underground, Merzbow and Ziggy Karkowski. It's not an unpleasant journey, though there are as many flops as good tracks (the best being "Voie IV"); strong ideas tend to get bogged down in loops too soon, as our intrepid explorers get lost somewhere "along the continuum toward greater pleasure."—DW

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