JULY News 2005 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Nate Dorward, Nicholas Rice, Massimo Ricci, Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg, Dan Warburton:

On NotTwo: Vandermark 5 ALCHEMIA
In Concert in Paris:
Eliane Radigue / Aguirre & Fink / Curtis & Karis / Guionnet, Denzler & Charmetant / Krieger, Licht & Barnes / Min Xiao Fen & Yumiko Tanaka / Tetuzi Akiyama & Eric Cordier
Peter Wright
On ErstLive:
Keith Rowe / Sachiko M / Toshimaru Nakamura / Otomo Yoshihide
Best of British:
Graham Collier / Alan Skidmore / John Surman
In Concert in New York: Ligeti / Kurtag / Carter / Dallapiccola / Harbison / Dutilleux / Boulez / MacMillan
Bergman, Coxhill & Hession / Bailey & Parker / Leimgruber, Demierre & Phillips / Sclavis & Montera / Sound on Survival / Braxton & Bauder / Jon Rose / Nickendes Perlgras
Okkyung Lee / Soegaard & Poulsen / Wadada Leo Smith / Mats Gustafsson / Barberan, Garcia, Fages, Costa Monteiro / EKG / Fefer & Few
David Behrman / Robert Normandeau /
Morceaux de Machines / Thomas Köner / Punck / Peter Wright / Peter Rehberg
Last month


Truth is, as they say, stranger than fiction.. I opened the issue of PT that appeared bright and early on the morning of April 1st this year with an April Fools' story about an imaginary label called Pisces (remember in French they say poisson d'avril) and some utterly implausible releases supposedly available for free download. Or at least I thought they were utterly implausible – it turns out that Sunny Murray and Henry Grimes did play together in a gallery in February (when, you'll recall, Grimes was in town for the Sons d'Hiver concert reviewed here), as I found out when I received this angry mail from the redoubtable Margaret Davis, Grimes' partner and business manager: "I would like an immediate explanation and full contact information for your 'main man' Olivier Flétan. We did not authorize anyone to record, let alone release, the Henry Grimes & Sunny Murray duets that took place in the gallery in Paris last February (I don't know what 'L'Ecailler' is, since that wasn't the name of the gallery). No one made a contract with Henry Grimes (or me on his behalf), and the 'exciting new label Pisces' did not pay Henry his fee and has absolutely no right to have dealings with Henry's music." When I pointed out to Margaret that the whole story was a big hoax hahaha she wasn't the least bit amused.. OK so I wasn't expecting everyone to know that "flétan" means "halibut" and "écailler" is an oyster seller, but I thought she might have spotted a few of the other Pisces releases as the utter spoofs they so obviously were. She would if she'd read the whole issue of Paris Transatlantic that featured the reviews of Mr Grimes' music, but, hey, it's the Internet, and you're free to surf and click on what takes your fancy and leave the rest behind. But if you don't like what you read in these pages, do me a favour and do that, OK? Just close the Web page and do something else with your time, instead of playing Sheriff and threatening the send in the lawyers to "find this person and put him out of business immediately.." For those of you who don't understand French, bonne lecture means happy reading.—DW

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The Vandermark 5
Not Two MW 750-2 12xCD
Recorded over five days, from March 15th – 19th 2004 in the club of the same name in Cracow, Poland, Alchemia documents the entirety of the Vandermark 5's residency in that fair city, and provides much more than a snapshot of one of the hardest working groups in contemporary jazz at the height of its powers. In addition to 21 Vandermark originals, including three new pieces, "Camera", "That Was Now" and "Pieces Of The Past", the programme featured no fewer than 10 Rahsaan Roland Kirk compositions, two pieces by Sonny Rollins ("The Bridge" and Part Two of "The Freedom Suite") and works by Don Cherry ("There Is The Bomb"), Archie Shepp ("Wherever June Bugs Go") and, to celebrate his 75th birthday, Cecil Taylor ("Conquistador, Part 2"). As well as Ken Vandermark (reeds), the band includes Dave Rempis (saxophones), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Kent Kessler (bass) and Tim Daisy (drums), in other words the V5 line-up as it has been since 2001 (Bishop has since left the group, apparently to be replaced by Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello).
In a recent review for PT, Stephen Griffith, a KV fan if ever there was one, wondered "whether the world really needs a12-disc Vandermark 5 live set.." Were that to be rephrased as: "Is there a market for a 12-disc Vandermark 5 live set?" the answer would be a resounding yes, since producer Marek Winiarski recently confirmed he'd already shifted over 250 boxes in the States alone – out of an edition of 1000, which is no mean undertaking for a small, fledgling label. If one counts these 12 discs as just one element of the V5 discography and includes compilations, the group has released 14 albums over the past nine years, making it one of the best-documented outfits in jazz today. Following the development of the V5 on disc from 1997's Single Piece Flow to last year's Elements of Style is a fascinating exercise, and, if album sales and critical acclaim are anything to go by, one that many jazz fans (Mr Griffith included) have undertaken with great relish. As such, Alchemia is something that any self-respecting Vandermark fan can't really afford to be without, even if the idea of shelling out something in the region of $100 ($90 I believe if you order it direct from Not Two's Website at nottwo.com) might not appeal at first.

OK, OK, so much for the Not Two promo publicity spin. Stephen Griffith's musing raises another important question: could this be the beginning of a trend? It's not inconceivable that similar small labels could follow suit and release for public consumption equally huge box sets documenting literally hundreds of concerts, especially if they adopt the cheaper CDR format. These days (to quote Morrissey, stop me if you've heard this one before) anyone with an Mbox or portable DAT recorder and a laptop with some editing and mastering software can print and release a superb quality live recording with attractive packaging and liners to boot for next to nothing. A casual glance at the hundreds of discs reviewed at this site over the past few years will reveal many of them to be just that (though not all are CDRs, of course). But allow me if you will to quote from Ned Rothenberg's interview with Sasha Burov: "I have thousands of tapes of gigs, good gigs, that I don't need to release. I have a very different attitude towards making CDs from some of my friends, people like Evan [Parker], or Elliott [Sharp]. Their attitude is albums come out, people know them for a little while, and then it's over. Like they were magazines. Not like each one is perfect, it's just so people know what you're doing. Nowadays everything can be recorded in so much higher quality – this isn't like Charlie Parker recorded by Dean Benedetti in the bathroom – and everybody has a digital tape recorder. We're drowning in material, and drowning in musicians, and everything is being packaged, repackaged. How many times are you going to put out Kind of Blue?"

Is the "record-as-document" idea the way to go? It seems fair to assume that if today's technology had been around in the 1950s and 1960s we'd now have literally thousands of hours more Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Dolphy (the list goes on..) to listen to, which is great if you're a diehard fan, but even the most assiduous collector still only has 24 hours in a day. I was asked why so few of the records I selected for my totally self-indulgent Top 40 a couple of years ago date from the past five years, and the simple answer to that is that I haven't had the time – and, if things carry on the way they are now, probably never will have – to listen to new albums more than a handful of times before the next new disc gets popped into the machine. I've had great fun listening to Alchemia, and can proudly report I've given each of the 12 discs my undivided attention at least three times – but is that really enough?
The advantage of a huge set like this is that one can at least approach it in different ways. It's enlightening to chart the progress of the new Vandermark compositions over the five evenings – "Camera" appears no fewer than five times, "That Was Now" four times and "Pieces Of The Past" twice – listen to how the band gradually warm to the material, gaining assurance with each successive performance. Adopting another tack, you could extract a whole album or double album of V5 covers, those famous "free jazz classics", one of which could be entirely given over to the Rahsaan Roland Kirk material (for those who didn't net the Free Kings bonus CD with the first 1500 copies of Elements of Style). And we haven't even mentioned the last two discs of the set, which document a couple of lively jam sessions held by the V5 with locals Marcin and Bartlomiej Oles sitting in.. Very few people will have the time to play the whole set back to back, but if you do you'll appreciate the difference between the first and last days, and how the group responds to ever more enthusiastic crowds as the week progresses.

There's much to recommend Alchemia: the recordings are uniformly excellent (though had I been mixing them I might have been tempted to add just a smidgeon of reverb..), the liner notes, apart from a few typos, informative (well, the Vandermark interview at least – 'fraid my Polish isn't up to tackling Maciej Karlowski's essay), and the music, needless to say, superbly played. I am, however, reminded of a remark made by Vandermark's former Flying Luttenbachers boss Weasel Walter on a Bagatellen thread discussing this very box ("bless his funny little Midwestern work ethic.."): Alchemia is, like it or not, another example of contemporary culture's information overload, perfect perhaps for people who pay to have 200 channels of Cable TV and only ever watch two of them, or who download zillions of megabytes of music and video only to have them languish unheard and unwatched in hard drives. I sincerely hope that anyone who invests in this document can find more time to spend with it than I have (so far): but I do have a sneaking suspicion that it won't be long before another equally enormous box set comes along to claim everybody's attention.—DW

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In Concert
Eliane Radigue
PSI 847
Rue de Hauteville, Paris
22nd May 2005
Had anyone wanted to wipe out a sizeable percentage of the French capital's new music personalities, a strategically placed explosive device in the large, bare and slightly dilapidated ground floor space off a quiet street in the Xème arrondissement would have done just fine. They'd gathered there on a sunny Sunday afternoon to attend a private concert – invitations were circulated by email and spread like wildfire – organised by architect and new music enthusiast Stéphane Roux, which was originally to have begun with a work for cello (Mark Wastell) and electronics by Hervé Boghossian, by way of a prelude to a rare performance of an even rarer work, Eliane Radigue's PSI 847, last heard in New York City's Kitchen back in 1973. A review of that concert by then Village Voice critic Tom Johnson was tacked up on the studio wall (and Johnson, as it turned out, was in the audience again today, having moved to Paris twenty years ago), and, like Radigue's music, it hadn't aged a bit. As it turned out, the premiere of Boghossian's piece had to be postponed, which was unfortunate but did serve to underline the uniqueness of Radigue's 80-minute tape composition, whose original reel-to-reel analogue tapes were mixed with extraordinary precision by Lionel Marchetti – another great pair of ears – and diffused in quadrophony to four speakers meticulously placed in the corners of the room.
Describing Radigue's music is about as pointless as describing a Rothko ("well, umm, there's this big red patch and this big brown patch next to it.."): it seems alarmingly simple but is meticulously constructed ("all done by hand," the composer smiled modestly as she acknowledged the applause at the end of the work, "like knitting, really..") and, as Johnson astutely pointed out in his original write-up, remains strikingly intimate despite its imposing scale and lack of live performers – interesting comparisons could be made with the music of Phill Niblock. Radigue was evidently delighted with the rapturous reception the work received, but admitted that if she were to redo the work today "it would probably end up not quite as long.." Adding, with just a hint of cheekiness in her smile, "but I'm not going to do it again!" A DAT recorder was in evidence.. dare we hope that this magnificent and little known work might soon surface on CD? Watch this space – an interview with Mme Radigue is coming soon.

Marcelo Aguirre / Michael Jon Fink
Charles Curtis / Aleck Karis
Instants Chavirés, May 27th 2005
Though Michael Jon Fink is perhaps best known to readers of these pages as a pianist, having penned and performed several hauntingly beautiful Feldman-inflected (but unashamedly tonal) compositions for California's Cold Blue label, he's just as adept at tone painting with a guitar in his hands. Accompanied by percussionist Marcelo Aguirre, sitting behind an impressive array of gongs and cymbals, Fink's guitar playing was discreet but highly nuanced – Jorg Maria Zeyer's work with Perlonex came to mind – in a 40-minute set of delicate improvisations that was warmly received by the public, though several diehard improv heads propping up the bar at the Instants Chavirés (which is usually where you find me) were heard to mutter "New Age" under their breath, as if it was some vile expletive.
Dirty word it might be round these parts, but "New Age" could certainly describe Charles Curtis's Music For Awhile, an elegant but decidedly soft 3" CD with Henry Grant and Peter Imig released a couple of years ago on Beaurivage. For his appearance at the Instants, however, Curtis – back on his customary cello – was joined by pianist Aleck Karis for a performance of Morton Feldman's Patterns In A Chromatic Field. Performances of fully notated contemporary music are rare events at the Instants, a venue that usually concentrates on supporting the outer reaches of improvised music, so audience expectations were high (and the bar area deserted for 80 minutes), and Curtis and Karis certainly didn't disappoint. Those familiar with the other available recording of this particular Feldman work, by Rohan de Saram and Marianne Schroeder on hatART, will have been immediately surprised by the decidedly sprightly pace of Curtis's reading, but on further enquiry it turned out he was following the composer's metronome markings to the letter. Just because the works of Feldman's final period are long doesn't mean they're necessarily slow. Far from it. The virtuosity of these two performers was simply breathtaking – and happily their recording of the work is available on Tzadik (TZ 8002) and strongly recommended – Curtis's cello playing was utterly immaculate in terms of intonation, rhythmic accuracy and especially attack. I know of no other string player capable of beginning a bow more smoothly or change bow direction more imperceptibly: let's hope someone can prevail upon him to release his version of Terry Jennings's Piece for Cello and Saxophone (mentioned, you will recall, in our feature a while back on Alan Licht).

Jean-Luc Guionnet / Bertrand Denzler / Thomas Charmetant
Ulrich Krieger / Alan Licht / Tim Barnes
Instants Chavirés, June 1st 2005
When the French five-piece free improv outfit Hubbub formed five years ago, the difference in approach between the group's two saxophonists Jean-Luc Guionnet (alto) and Bertrand Denzler (tenor) was clearly audible – check out Hubbub's debut album Ub/Abu on For4Ears – but over the years Guionnet and Denzler have worked together with frequency (most recently on the Creative Sources outing Vasistas with Taku Unami and Kazushige Kinoshita) and have now become a formidable post-reductionist double act. Joined by cellist Thomas Charmetant for an impressive and not undramatic 40-minute set played in near total darkness, the contrast between their music and the second half of the evening featuring Text Of Light subset Ulrich Krieger (saxophones and electronics), Alan Licht (guitar) and Tim Barnes (percussion and electronics) couldn't have been more pronounced. While Barnes has revealed himself to be quite at home in lowercase improv, having signed a number of fine releases recently (with, amongst others, Mark Wastell and Tetuzi Akiyama), and Krieger has appeared on several austere outings with the Zeitkratzer ensemble of which he's an active member, Licht spells his minimalism with a capital M, and his scorching drones are far removed from micro-improv's near-empty soundscape. Several notable local alt.guitar heroes turned up, presumably expecting the guitarist to deliver the kind of exuberant feedback that graced his work with Rudolph Grey and the Blue Humans, and they might have been disappointed to see him sitting back in typically relaxed fashion (though the wall of sound he managed to build was nonetheless rock solid for it). Spurred on by Licht's rugged drones, Krieger and Barnes went somewhat over the top with gutbucket blasts of raucous baritone sax and crashing timpani that would have been better suited to one of the larger venues the musicians usually play with Text Of Light. Once more the IC barflies groaned, but the larger-than-usual public lapped it up.

Min Xiao-Fen / Yumiko Tanaka
Tetuzi Akiyama / Eric Cordier
Instants Chavirés June 3rd 2005
Teaming up pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen and gudayu-shamisen master Yumiko Tanaka was an inspired move. While their duo improvisations were a pure delight, one of those refreshingly simple and cliché-free experiences typical of first time collaborations (well, sometimes..), their individual offerings were startlingly different. Min Xiao-Fen, now resident in New York, chose to play a cover of Monk's "Ask Me Now", which was as pretty and quintessentially Downtown PoMo as one might expect (whatever became of Hal Willner, I wonder?), while Tanaka opted for traditional Japanese theatre, complete with dramatic guttural vocals, and ending with a comical pidgin flourish: "Finish!" Both women are consummate masters of their instruments, and happily recordings exist of their fine work: check out Min Xiao-Fen's work with John Zorn and Derek Bailey, and Yumiko Tanaka's outstanding solo Tayutauta on IMJ, reviewed in these pages a while back.
Next up was another Japanese string bender, Tetuzi Akiyama, joined by local hurdy-gurdy man Eric Cordier for what was their second public outing together (parts of the first, recorded a year and a half ago at Les Voûtes, appeared on a recent Kokeko compilation album well worth hunting down). The set certainly had its moments, but the notoriously self-critical Cordier didn't look exactly satisfied, probably Akiyama remained very much in his post-Fahey noodling mode, preferring to engage with the hurdy-gurdy in the pitch / melody domain (which presents something of a problem for Cordier, whose work is less concerned with notes and more with texture). Perhaps Akiyama was saving something in reserve for the evening's third set, a brief solo outing featuring selections from his highly acclaimed Don't Forget To Boogie album on Idea. The incessant blues licks and thunderous power chords certainly thrilled the ears of the IC regulars, many of whom had their fingers jammed tightly in their ears (though the fragile Ms Tanaka, sitting at the back of the room, didn't, and visibly loved every minute of it). Now that the Idea LP has become a much sought after out of print collector's item, interested punters should instead get hold of Akiyama's new Headz CD Route 13 To The Gates Of Hell, which also features a live set of Boogie material, but there's no real substitute for experiencing it live. Rock on!—DW photo of Min by Jack Vartoogian

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Peter Wright
Peter Wright's music is projected skywards – through his soundscapes of shattering feedback drones or layers of bowed guitars one gets in touch with the basics of listening in a series of communicating waiting rooms that constantly appear and disappear, reminding us that human experience should not be measured in terms of so-called spiritual values but by our ability to detect and reproduce colours in sounds or physical vibrations. Born in New Zealand, today based in London, Wright developed his strong musical personality in Christchurch, where he formed a multitude of bands to explore the ideas he would eventually fuse to mould his own magnificent work. Among these projects, many of them immortalized on cassettes for the kRkRkRk label, Bent Gastropod Omnibus and In Vitro contain the seed of the trademark Peter Wright sound: peculiarly-tuned chiming guitars, introspection, ambience and effects perfectly mixed with warped pop influences, plus a sort of acoustic darkness gradually replacing the music's noisy genesis. Another band, Leonard Nimoy, which Wright described as a Michael Gira-influenced performance group to deeply shock audiences, better represented the more violent aspects of Wright's early output. Coitus started out as an Industrial conception, yet Wright was already charting out a path towards what he calls "minimal, drifting instrumental music" on the cassette releases "Man In Blue Box" and "Man In Glass Cage", whose re-reworked material would later see the light as Automaton on Wright's own Apoplexy label. These and many other bands prepared the ground for the last decade, in which Wright's skilful complexity affirmed itself with a vengeance. Since the 90s he has released a sizeable body of work under his own name, alone or with collaborators such as David Khan or Uton (the Birdsongs For Sewers CD with the latter, on Digitalis, contains some Wright's best recent music) while keeping some of his unfinished/previously discarded work for his side project, Polio, where he recycles and digitally manipulates the most disparate sonic sources in a "diseased distillation" he calls "a reflection on my own association and subsequent dependence on technology". "Collapse", on Polio (Freedom From), brings together several Wright specialities: an almost imperceptible prayer consisting of phantom harmonic sibilance set against a backdrop of subsonic apprehension that progressively makes way for an avalanche of scraped and bowed electric guitars, ruling out any prospect of a tranquil existence. "Microtone" is the rumbling outcome of a work on microphone feedback whose continuously morphing shapes have devastating effects on the equilibrium. On other outings under his own name, Radioplay and Syncopate (both on Apoplexy), Wright includes shortwaves in his search for new horizons. If other recordings like Soyuz and Gemini (also on Apoplexy) are gripping in their dejected beauty, one of the highlights of the whole Polio project is "Sandblaster", which opens the Concrete album (on Humbug) – listening to its silence, static frequencies, penetrating feedback loops, pulsating tremors and vacant lights is like looking at a distant city at night from a hilltop. Our deepest thoughts are carved in the grainy stone of lost memories.

The economy of means with which Wright produces such gorgeous immobile awareness is inversely proportional to the under-the-radar proliferation of his limited-quantity editions that, for the most part, sell out almost immediately. A comprehensive discography can be found on his Distant Bombs website (www.mcharg.clara.net) and several of these discs deserve a spot in the sunlight. For starters, the aforementioned Automaton (Apoplexy) marks a decisive trait d'union between the "Industrial" influences ("A Stone Blanket") and a shamanic flow of electricity that finds its force in spirals of unquiet twirls bathed in rusty agitation where voices as evil spirits ("Screaming Skulls") and pre-explosion piano monotony ("Terminus II") surround the listener with menace. It's fractured, low-budget musique concrète, but its effect on the nervous system is often quite destabilizing. Duna (on Last Visible Dog) alternates bagpipe-sounding strata of chordal dissonance and tense vibration of adjacent tones with the furiously distorted, 31-minute long "Without A Second Thought He Turned His Back To The People And Painted The Wall", while The Broken Kawai (Pseudoarcana) cross-pollinates pure noise experimentation with a spicy acousmatic sauce – source sounds include bicycle parts and clarinet – with impressive oleaginous patches extending ad infinitum over multi-frequency feedback, drones finally succumbing to nervous silence. The final "Roulette" bears the sacral character of a church organ's reverberating overtones, and yet it's just a fantastic overlapping of guitar infinity, a work whose detailed sounds and immaculate wholeness put it in a class by itself among Wright's many marvels. Red Lion (Tour Edition) is a collection of gradual detours to contagious droning bliss in which Wright smothers the flames of a perennial anguish with reverberating zinging strings and the environmental consonance of faraway planes. This is one of Wright's strongest works, along with his two releases on Celebrate Psi Phenomenon, A Tiny Camp In The Wilderness and Catch A Spear As It Flies, the latter featuring characteristically enthralling murals of relentless guitar vibration and found sounds in a music that releases its enormous harmonic power little by little, in a slowly uncoiling ceremonial. On the same level is Desolation, Beauty, Violence (Digitalis), composed on a 12-string Danelectro plus "minimal effects and field recordings"; the fixed vibrational purr of the astounding "Adrift at 30,000 ft" manages to be down-to-earth and celestially radiant at one and the same time. "Kashmir" translates the sound of the Danelectro into myriad sitars, while "Evening at Ben Ohay" is one of the most intense static compositions you're likely to hear. Maybe the most involuntarily "devotional" record by Peter, Desolation, Beauty, Violence could be the perfect starting point to penetrate the tortuous, sublime underworld of this gifted, hyperactive yet still virtually unknown master painter.—MR

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On ErstLive
Keith Rowe / Sachiko M / Toshimaru Nakamura / Otomo Yoshihide
ErstLive 005 3CD
Erstwhile's indefatigable boss Jon Abbey has taken full advantage of the excellent live recordings made at the last two AMPLIFY festivals, firstly by releasing the 7CD + DVD box documenting the Tokyo edition of AMPLIFY (reviewed in these pages a year and a half ago) and secondly by launching the ErstLive imprint with its elegant slimline jewel boxes, the first four of which you can also read about here. ErstLive 005, like its predecessors, was recorded at the German edition of AMPLIFY (shared between Cologne and Berlin) in May 2004, but in terms of scope and scale it's in another ballpark altogether. The concert that took place in Berlin's Backfabrik on May 14th featured Keith Rowe (guitar and electronics), Sachiko M (sinewaves, contact microphone on object), Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board) and Otomo Yoshihide (turntables and electric guitar) – between them they've appeared on no fewer than 15 Erstwhile releases, not including the AMPLIFY box and this 3CD set – and was unique in that it lasted four hours.

Non-stop performances of music lasting over two hours are, of course, rare occurrences. I can think offhand of three that I've attended, none all the way through – (opera of course is excluded, since its division into acts allows plenty of time for punters to stretch their legs and stuff themselves with smoked salmon sandwiches, or whatever fine fare opera houses serve up in the entr'actes these days.. I haven't been to the opera for nearly two decades and can't say I miss it): Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet at the Reform Club in London, and two four-hour concerts at the Instants Chavirés, the first an apocalyptic one-man show by Keiji Haino (who else), the other by Phéromone, the French EAI trio of Pascal Battus, Eric Cordier and Jean-Luc Guionnet. My experiences with the Feldman, and how I eventually skulked out of the concert, have been documented elsewhere ; the Instants Chavirés on the evening of the Haino concert was packed to capacity and unbearably hot, and (unlike Wire editor Chris Bohn, who came over specially for the event from London and stood patiently throughout at the back of the room with a beatific smile on his face) I was forced for various reasons related to drug addiction to step out of the club on numerous occasions; as for the Phéromone concert, I arrived at what I thought was show time – 8.30pm – to find that they'd already been playing for two hours. Not exactly a great track record on my part. Nor did I attend the most celebrated marathon new music concert of recent times, the 24-hour concert by MIMEO staged as part of 2000's Musique Action festival in Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy. The event and the reactions of both the participants and the public was painstakingly and lovingly documented in the Bruit Blanc fanzine published by Patrick Boeuf and the Peace Warriors team (go to: http://fennec.ouvaton.org/pro_bruitblanc/bruitblanc.html) and also reviewed in The Wire by none other than Jon Abbey. The whole shebang was recorded by Jean-Marc Foussat, and at one point there were plans to release parts of it on several different labels, but those seem to have fallen by the wayside, which makes Abbey's decision to release the entirety of the 2004 Backfabrik concert as bold as it is welcome – not that the music played by these four is very similar to the twelve-man maelstrom of MIMEO: the world of improvised music has changed a lot since 2000.

True to form, I didn't (couldn't) go to either of the German legs of AMPLIFY last year, but PT's roving correspondent Wayne Spencer did, and his long and not uncontroversial review of the festival led to some heated debate on Bagatellen.com. This was what he wrote about the Backfabrik concert:
"The set began with a silence into which music from another part of the complex percolated. Soon, however, the quartet emerged from its repose to develop the sound that would fill the next three hours and 55 minutes. Summarising a performance of this length in a few words requires egregious simplification and excision; nonetheless, I think it is not too inaccurate to suggest that a defining characteristic of the music that unfolded over the course of an evening that started in weak sunshine and ended in a deep gloom illuminated by just three lights and the table-top lamps in front of each performer was the strong sense of a field uniting the individual players into a collective presence, a common musical space bound together not just by devices such as the shimmering ground provided by Sachiko M and Nakamura alone or with other members of the group, but also by the evident locus of attention and expectation uniting the quartet and the ways in which new strands of sound were woven together with existing contributions so as to emphasise the emergent shared fabric as well as the novel components. At the heart of the group’s matrix was the shifting ground arising at any given time from some combination of sine waves, mixing-board pulsations, buzzes, the sound of a fan playing on guitar strings, or other extended, drone-like components. Introduced into this space was a diversity of elements, ranging from the sounds of distressed wire and metal to electronic white noise or gentle clicks and crackles, with events initially fading in and out of the background swells in relatively brief episodes. Over time, the density of the music increased, as Yoshihide and Rowe began to engage in a more active and sustained dialogue on electric guitar/turntables and tabletop guitar respectively, utilizing a multiplicity of small sounds and more occasional violent interjections. This in turn was succeeded by a pronounced emphasis of the horizontal, consisting first of dense, massive drones flecked by high-pitched waves and later by quieter drones accompanied by intermittent percussive touches. The session concluded with a long period of shimmering reverberations and sine waves commingled with streaks of white noise, crackles and restrained percussion that was superficially subdued yet strongly present in the midnight air. It was a powerful conclusion to a superb collaborative performance."

The heated debate between the journalist and the festival organiser mentioned above centred on Spencer's concluding broadside (the whole debate is still available for consultation at Bagatellen if you're curious, though if you have the time to spare, I would seriously recommend you spent it listening to the music instead) – after all, Jon Abbey would surely find little to complain about in the preceding paragraph, which is a fair and accurate description of the music as it comes across on these three superbly recorded discs. Hats off once again to Christoph Amann. It all starts in the gloom, to be sure, as distant footsteps break a tense silence, but anyone expecting an extended version of Good Morning, Good Night, last year's ultra-austere Erstwhile double featuring Sachiko, Otomo and Nakamura, will be pleasantly surprised. This is music of enormous variety, depth and colour – don't be put off by Rowe's Joseph Albers-inspired cover art – and perfectly accessible, able to work its charms in many diverse listening situations, either through headphones with total concentration, or played at normal to loud volume while you continue with other daily activities (like writing PT album reviews, for example..). It's not as boisterous and crunchy as Rowe's duo with Burkhard Beins on ErstLive 001, but there are plenty of wonderful surprises, from the flurry of activity that kicks off disc 2 to the awesome pitch-centred drone that takes over 34 minutes later. And it gets better – once the two-hour mark is passed, the performers really hit their stride and establish a real rhythm. Not rhythm as in boom boom boom, of course, but a sense of space, pace and poise that gives the lie to the tired old clichés (many of which were probably written by me) that this kind of music is terminally slow and empty.

I keep thinking about those concerts I walked out of, or missed altogether. Would I have enjoyed them as much as I enjoy this, if I'd stayed the course? Would I enjoy hearing a recording of them? The Feldman I've since grown to love (amazingly that quartet has been recorded twice, but never live), the Haino probably not – though his drum machine work was certainly fun – and the jury's still out on the Phéromone. (I would, however, heartily recommend their Corpus Hermeticum release Disparlure..) At Backfabrik, the public – there were some 70 people there, according to Abbey – was free to come and go, but apart from those footsteps remained mercifully quiet, spellbound no doubt. And, to quote another desperately tired old cliché, "thanks to this recording now you can be there too!" Not me speaking this time, but Otomo: "[T]he boundary between listening to this CD and playing this music is totally dissolved, and there is only a difference of time and space where the sounds are heard." For her part, Sachiko is typically minimal and to the point: "Four hours for four musicians. In there, just sounds that appear and disappear. The only meaningful thing was the reality and the fact that I definitely existed within it. That's enough. It was such a luxurious and marvelous time." It still is, every time you hit the Play button.—DW photo of Sachiko M courtesy Wayne Spencer / Otomo Yoshihide and Toshi Nakamura courtesy Yuko Zama

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Best of British
Graham Collier
Cuneiform Rune 213-214 2CD
Alan Skidmore
Vocalion CDSML 8406
John Surman
Vocalion CDSML 8402
John Surman
Cuneiform Rune 200
Now that jazz has become something of a "world music", the argument for the integrity of British jazz may now seem rather sectarian, but during the 1950s and 60s, despite – or maybe because of – the lack of American expatriate jazz musicians in the UK (union laws being one-for-one and rather hermetic: for every American wanting to work in the UK, there had to be one British jazzman in the States), British jazz and improvised music was brimming with vitality and value. For sure, when UK hardbop was in its prime in the late 50s and early 60s, there were constant comparisons to American jazzmen – Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Joe Harriott and Dizzy Reece were recorded as token Europeans by some American labels and described as "the English Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, or Miles", but each was, of course, profoundly unique and owed only the fact that they were improvising on changes (or modes) to American jazz.
It is certainly true that innovations in contemporary composition and improvisation during the 1960s had an extraordinary effect on both the structural and improvisational direction of jazz in England, and by the latter part of the decade, the bands led by reedmen Scott, Hayes, John Surman, bassist Graham Collier and drummer John Stevens were at the forefront of European improvised music. The "Old Place" (Ronnie Scott's original club, which he donated to the young musicians after he moved locations) and The Little Theatre were hubs of activity in London at the time, presenting the new British jazz and improvisation in programs directed by the musicians themselves. Comparisons might be made with the later "loft scene" in the States, the major difference being that in Britain major record companies were interested in recording the country's jazz vanguard, moreover in programs of music that were surprisingly little watered-down. Between 1967 and 1974 Deram, Argo, CBS, RCA-Victor, Philips, EMI, Fontana, Polydor and Island released some of the most avant-garde music in the UK (and possibly in Europe) by Surman, Hayes, Harriott, Collier, Tony Oxley, Evan Parker, the Brotherhood of Breath, Keith Tippett, Ray Russell, and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
A few groups in particular were veritable breeding grounds for avant-garde musicians in England – Collier, pianists Keith Tippett, Mike Westbrook and South African expatriate Chris McGregor ran the principal workshops (though Scott’s house band also boasted Surman, Oxley, David Holland and pianist Gordon Beck among its soloists). Collier’s band, though it might be the most obscure of the list, is, along with McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath probably arguably the ensemble with the longest-lived vitality and relevance. Whereas Westbrook, after a strong early showing with Marching Song and Love Songs for Deram, embraced jazz-rock and cloying program music by the early 70s, Collier’s music – rather like a free version of early Charles Mingus – continued to embrace long-form pan-tonal compositional frameworks, angular and dissonant yet with a natural, even-toed penchant for measuring and tempering that freedom that frameworks provide. He has also maintained a constancy of direction throughout a career that is still going strong to this day.
"Tempered freedom" might be the catchphrase of British jazz during this period, and Collier’s approach seems to be one of the more successful in this regard. Before beginning his Mosaic label in 1973 on which he has recorded prolifically, Collier recorded four records for Deram (Deep Dark Blue Centre, 1967), Fontana (Down Another Road, 1969 and Songs for my Father, 1970) and Philips (Mosaics, 1971). Recorded live in Southampton on a lengthy UK tour in 1968, disc one of Cuneiform’s Workpoints catches Collier between two recording dates with a twelve-piece ensemble that looks back on the tightly-arranged ‘avant-garde cool’ of the Deram session with new, much more unbridled eyes that would capture not only the sounds and colors but also the canvases used on his next several sides. The tour was sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain, which commissioned the four-part suite that makes up most of the disc (Collier was the first jazzman to receive a grant from the Council). The bassist is joined by a number of regulars in his bands as well as a few faces who would make their only Collier appearance here: trumpeters Harry Beckett and Kenny Wheeler, reedmen Dave Aaron and Karl Jenkins (later of the Soft Machine), drummer John Marshall and trombonist Mike Gibbs (a noted composer and bandleader in his own right) are holdovers from the initial recording, and are joined by Surman, trumpeter Henry Lowther, vibraphonist Frank Ricotti, and trombonists John Mumford and Chris Smith.
Starting off the set is an eighteen-minute reading of one of Collier’s most intriguing compositions, “Deep Dark Blue Centre,” which replaces the furry reading on the Deram session with a downright woolly one here. The tune itself is modal, the binding glue a fast waltz with Collier and Marshall reminiscent of Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones, and the written horn arrangement a knotty atonal melody reminiscent of Gil Evans at his most surly. Though the thrust lies in the free-time solos and duets that make up the non-thematic sections, I suspect the piece is written in a version of the AABACA format, with the A being the pastoral dirge that leads into the fast B theme, and the C being the free sections. Following the first free interlude, Gibbs, Aaron, Collier and Marshall slowly march the tune up to the theme again before Surman and Mumford take off on a thick hardbop sparring contest, the rhythm section holding an urgent tempo as Ricotti dances around them before the piece breaks down once again into contrapuntal, free-time solos and duets. Ricotti is a revelation here on what might be his first recorded appearance; he glides over and under the ensemble, a glassy sprite with echoes of Karl Berger’s ephemeral tone and hyperactive-child improvisations. He is given a significant amount of room to stretch in the title suite, for the final movement is dedicated to the rhythm section – and Ricotti makes full use of the bulkhead seating. The vibraphonist recorded one date for CBS as a leader with guitarist Chris Spedding (the wonderful Our Point of View, reissued by Columbia) in 1969, and worked in Harry Beckett’s S&R Power Station in the early 70s, appearing on Beckett’s Themes for Fega (RCA-Victor, 1971).
The title track is based once again on signposts, though they are significantly less tight than on the opener; its opening bass line echoes the one that anchors “Deep Dark Blue Center” at the outset, quickly shifting into what sounds like eleven (let it never be said that Collier prefers standard time signatures). “Workpoints,” though, is necessarily freer, the title coming from Lawrence Durrell’s term for thematic roots that anchor his writing, allowing for pretty much anything to happen between those signposts. The thematic material in Collier’s suite is loose as well, a simple horn arrangement quickly fading into an alto-vibes duet, before Surman and Jenkins join in for a fiery baritone duel, soon served up in an Afro-Latin rhythmic stew, with Ricotti switching to bongos (and other band members playing chekere and timbales, if my ears don’t deceive). This arrangement in particular also echoes the suite that makes up half of Surman’s own self-titled debut – the backing of baritone by multiple percussionists with occasional brass-section is uncannily similar. Rhythm is something that Collier began to make powerful use of in his pieces around this point, not only in the odd time signatures and superimposed rhythms that find their way into much of his work, but, as on “Workpoints,” in the even more apparent percussive underpinning – traps augmented by vibes, bongos, cowbell and shakers flesh out the tonal colors of his brass and reed writing. Collier also knows how to use Beckett’s talents – the trumpeter appears on most, if not all, Collier releases from his 1967 debut well into the 70s. Here, part two of “Workpoints” brings Beckett into the fore over a static rhythm, with Lowther contributing his own fire and Wheeler his terse, muted brilliance. Beckett, though, contains so much poise and lyricism that he cuts through the ensemble with what seems like little effort – though he has possibly never shone as brightly with Collier as he did on Down Another Road, as the piece “Danish Blue” will attest.
Seven and a half years after “Workpoints” was recorded, Collier brought a pared-down ensemble to Middleheim, Belgium for a performance of his “Darius” (see Darius, Mosaic Records, 1974) suite and four other pieces. Joined by Beckett, drummer John “Chick” Webb, pianist Roger Dean, guitarist Ed Speight and saxophonist Art Themen, this set, despite rather serious shortcomings in the recording department, including a few abrupt fade-outs and fade-ins, offers a view of where Collier went with the groundwork laid by the previous set. “Little Ben,” the opener, is given somewhat to jazz-rock tendencies, made significantly more apparent by Speight’s rather bombastic proggy guitar solo, a far cry from the subtle work of Philip Lee on Deep Dark Blue Centre and Songs for my Father. Beckett follows with one of his slices of fragmented poetry, and Themen contributes a delectably out tenor statement. “Under the Pier” is a somewhat cloying blues-rock number that probably would have benefited from a Jack Bruce vocal, but in this incarnation it doesn’t really carry the weight it could in another context. Most of the space of this concert is reserved for “Darius,” a rather open suite that continues the process laid down in “Workpoints,” though it is significantly more grounded rhythmically and harmonically than the earlier work and not given so readily to free group improvisation. The third movement offers the most driving music of the set, and not coincidentally, some of the most open. Here and in the fourth movement, Dean is given quite a bit of harmonic wandering room, which frees Beckett and Themen to take very liberated solos and prods Speight into his most sensitive of the set. The Middleheim concert might not show Collier at his most formidable, but it does give a clearer idea of where he took freedom and how it was incorporated into a delicately balanced oeuvre of arrangement and sonic liberation.
Graham Collier’s band was as much a proving ground for up-and-coming saxophonists as it was for horn men and arrangers; tenor saxophonists Tony Roberts, Stan Sulzman, Alan Skidmore and Alan Wakeman made strong showings on Collier’s first few dates, Skidmore lighting more than a few fires on 1970’s Songs for my Father. Comparable to Sam Rivers and Joe Henderson in his powerful, biting tone and free-bop leanings, Skid’s formidable technique and visceral presence made him a frequent choice for the tenor chair in a number of bands in this period. A member of the reed section in the Brotherhood of Breath in the early 70s and joining John Surman on numerous occasions (notably the Surman-Osborne-Skidmore trio of the late 70s), he made two highly regarded sessions as a leader for Decca Nova and Philips in 1969 and 1970. Once Upon a Time (Decca Nova, reissued by Vocalion) teams the tenorist up with pianist John Taylor, Brotherhood bassist and Ogun Records founder Harry Miller, percussionist Tony Oxley and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler for a romp through three stand-alone pieces and a sidelong suite. Surprisingly, the record starts off with a pastoral theme written by Surman for the leader’s young daughter Alice, providing the album with its title. The piece is a loosely-swinging hardbop ballad, a terse ascending theme from the horns leading into a typically pinched and brassy Wheeler solo (sometimes one wishes Manfred Schoof had been vacationing in England in those days), Skidmore’s statement a brief near-boil that oddly lays off his usual fireworks, segueing easily into a relaxed Taylor filigree before the theme returns. It’s an inauspicious start, but what follows is even stranger: Oxley’s “Magaera”, a call for the horns leading into free counterpoint that was revisited the next year on the drummer’s Four Compositions for Sextet (CBS, with Wheeler, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Derek Bailey and Jeff Clyne). The grab bag continues with an exuberant, Hayes-Scott number by John Taylor, “The Yolk,” featuring a more characteristic heel-digging hardbop solo by the leader. Unfortunately, Skid’s buzzing harmonics segue into a rather limpid Wheeler statement, the trumpeter urged ahead by Oxley and Miller to a brief quarter-chorus of excitement before Taylor and Oxley (still in Tony Williams mode) take back the reins. The second half of the record is a suite comprised of Canadian baritonist-composer John Warren’s moody “Old San Juan” (see 1970’s Tales of the Algonquin with Surman, also reissued by Vocalion, for more of Warren’s genius), the percussive “Free for Al” and Surman’s “Image”. Taken as a whole the three pieces comprise enough slinky rhythm, Birtwistlesque arranging and virile soloing (not counting Wheeler) to make the record worthwhile, but barely a year later, Skid would record TCB for Philips with Taylor, Surman, Osborne, trombonist Malcolm Griffiths, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Tony Levin, a storming yet cohesive set that far surpasses this debut’s tentativeness.
Following recordings with Mike Westbrook and an obscure 1966 session with pianist Peter Lemer that was later released by ESP (Local Colour, with tenorman George Khan and Coliseum drummer Jon Hiseman), John Surman went into the Deram studios in 1968 to record his self-titled debut – released in the US by London as Anglo-Sax – which, like the Skidmore, relies mostly on the strength of a colorful and unruly sidelong suite to carry the record. Whether it was the influence of the record company or the fact that Sonny Rollins had a 1968 residency at Ronnie Scott’s (Surman played in the backing band), the first half of this record is taken up with West Indian calypso themes, joyous and perfectly edited for airplay. Surman, Osborne, Harry Miller, pianist Russ Henderson, drummer Stirling Betancourt and percussionist Errol Phillip glide through four pieces including Rollins’ “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and the eminently engaging “Obeah Wedding.” Despite the fact that the first half of the record is lambasted by many a Surman fan, “Obeah” offers brilliant and humorous solos by Osborne and the leader, and one hasn’t lived until one has heard the baritone saxophonist tear through a goofy island tune. Yet the meat of John Surman is to be found on the “Incantation – Episode – Dance” suite that takes up the remainder of the date. Surman is joined by trombonists Malcolm Griffiths and Paul Rutherford, Beckett and Wheeler, drummer Alan Jackson, bassist David Holland and a host of percussionists for a dense, colorful foray. The opening salvo features Surman at his most unbridled, Jackson and Holland providing strong dialogue and support, which segues into a measured written brass theme and a slowly additive collective improvisation starting with a fine Wheeler-Holland duo. “Dance” is an intense, wonderfully rhythmic and beautifully arranged piece, featuring Surman floating over an expanded percussion section (Jackson, Henderson, Betancourt and Phillip), Rutherford making his vocal Stockhausen-tailgate contribution in a heady dialogue with the leader. Though he would follow this with another two stunning slabs for Deram, How Many Clouds Can You See? (1970) and the aforementioned date with Warren, the youthful exuberance and airy rhythmic play that grace much of his debut would be replaced with dense, complex and emotionally weighty material – exuberant and powerful, but not quite as innocent as he was here.
To my ears, electric jazz with rock-based rhythm (okay, "fusion") has sounded more natural and, consequently, more invigorating coming from English musicians than in the American counterpart, primarily because there was a significant amount of cross-pollination between improvisers and rock musicians that did not occur when American jazz musicians "plugged in" and played Fillmore. Marshall and the aforementioned Collier sideman Karl Jenkins played in the Soft Machine, the UK’s psych-rock/free-fusion hybrid; Keith Tippett briefly joined King Crimson; Harry Beckett played with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce; Gary Windo sat in on an early incarnation of Gong – essentially, it was a natural cross-fertilization, though the Soft Machine/King Crimson/Keith Tippett arm was probably the most obvious and most fruitful relationship. Before heading to Belgium in late 1969 to work with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin in a trio – The Trio, to be precise – Surman met up with Mike Osborne, John Taylor, John Marshall and bassist Brian Odgers to record a session in London that remained in the can until a bootlegged "test pressing" showed up several years ago in collectors’ markets. Cuneiform has released this as Way Back When, a crucial puzzle-piece in Surman’s discography that shows him at the close of the 60s equally interested in electric jazz forms as he was (and is) free improvisation and orchestral arrangement. The title suite (re-recorded with John McLaughlin as “Glancing Backwards” for 1971’s Where Fortune Smiles, released on Dawn) is a jazz-rock masterpiece, Surman’s soprano and Taylor’s electric piano blending for a clarion call that leads into a visceral, acrid soprano solo, supported by edgy blocks of rhythm from Marshall and Odgers’ droning electric bass, Taylor providing distracted, ethereal comping and providing an atmospheric texture to a tune that is, in its other incarnation, rather dense. Though the first half offers a quartet with soprano – contributing to its sparseness, perhaps – Surman switches to baritone and is joined by Osborne’s alto for John Warren’s “Owlshead” and the leader’s “Out and About,” the former a nicely funky tune that somehow circumvents rock trappings to offer an elegant alto solo, one of the better Osborne solos on record. I’ve always been fond of Taylor’s electric piano, which sounds at times quizzically spacey and yet equally gives a solid weight to the proceedings – sometimes even to greater effect than his acoustic piano work.
Jazz in Britain during this period was undergoing as much surging change as the music did in the US a few years earlier (even throwing rock into the mix) – yet, interestingly, those architects of the music like Ronnie Scott and John Dankworth embraced and fostered the innovations of the avant-garde, donating practice space and opportunities for work, paving the way for a period of attention that might not have occurred otherwise. Granted, this ‘renaissance’ around 1970 was preceded and followed by as many hurdles as the music has faced anywhere else, but thankfully these watershed recordings and the environment they represent are once again seeing the light of day.—CA

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In concert in New York, Part 1
Over the past few months, New York has played host to a remarkable range of contemporary music events, some of them strictly classical, others bordering on folk, rock or jazz. There has also been a good balance between the “retro” tendency and performances dedicated to “the high priests of modernism”, rumors of whose demise have been greatly exaggerated. It's sometimes difficult to separate one camp from the other, though – György Ligeti being a case in point. Jonathan Nott and Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave two concerts with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Avery Fisher Hall, May 6th/8th) which distinguished the ultra-modernist Ligeti of the 1960s from the Ligeti of the later 1970s and beyond (who defines himself as being neither modernist nor post-modernist, but an independent voice free of the radical strictures of the avant-garde yet sufficiently personal not to be swamped by the “world music heritage”). In the first program, the Bambergers gave a confident reading of Lontano (1967), although not always with the textural detail Nott was indicating with his fingers, and Aimard produced a stunning rendition of six of the Études for piano (1985-1994), including a fantastic roar in the minor ninth bass scale which concludes the turbulent Automne à Varsovie. His readings have gained considerably in character since his recording of the first fourteen for Sony a decade or so ago: nowadays he rounds out a flawless technique with a rough jazzy touch and clockwork phrasing which provokes comparisons with the player piano works of Conlon Nancarrow (who Ligeti once hailed as the greatest composer in the world). The second program followed a similar model: again, Nott conducted an account of an early micropolyphonic work, Atmosphères (1961), which in its intricacy would have been better suited to his collaborations with the Berlin Philharmonic, while Aimard followed with another brilliant half dozen Études. The Bambergers realized their full potential when they rejoined Aimard for the last two Beethoven concerti, and the chemistry between Aimard and Nott made one look forward to a recording – of the Ligeti Piano Concerto, perhaps?

There was more Ligeti earlier in the year when James Levine joined the Met
Chamber Ensemble for two substantial concerts at Carnegie Hall (Zankel Hall, February 13th/27th). One does not normally associate Levine with contemporary chamber music, still less when he has long-term commitments at the Met Opera and the Boston Symphony, so it was something of a surprise to see him conduct his own ensemble in fine performances of the Chamber Concerto (1970) along with music by György Kurtág, John Harbison, Elliott Carter and Luigi Dallapiccola. The Dallapiccola was a beautiful miniature entitled Piccola musica notturna, originally written for orchestra in 1954 but rearranged in 1961 as a homage to Queen’s College in New York, where he taught for a period. Although the piece betrays the influence of serialism, the cells Dallapiccola uses are less than twelve notes long, emphasizing certain pitches and intervals and giving it a more traditional center of reference. By contrast, Luimen (1997), the short Carter work which followed it in the concert, entirely abandons harmonic convention for a spiky dialogue between six soloists (trumpet, trombone, harp, mandolin, guitar and vibraphone), including a separate jazz cadenza for guitar entitled, appropriately enough, “Shard” (Carter has not mellowed much with old age). “Luimen” is an archaic Dutch word meaning “whimsical moods”, and the work is correspondingly entertaining and eccentric. In the later concert, Levine tackled the Chamber Concerto, preceded by Harbison’s piano quartet November 19, 1828 (a homage to Schubert, written in 1988) and Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch. (a homage to Schumann, completed in 1990). This juxtaposition illustrated the contrast which Nott and Aimard also pinpointed between the avant-garde Hungarian music of the 60s and early 70s and the more “retro” movement that followed it. The Chamber Concerto has much in common with the Carter and the Dallapiccola: constructed from cells of less than twelve tones, it combines formal unity with Ligeti-like eccentricity. Clusters and polyrhythms, clocks and clouds – these techniques and images predominate here as elsewhere in his output. The Kurtág, by contrast, looks backwards to Schumann, but not in the neo-Expressionist or neo-Romantic vein that Harbison adopts for his Schubert homage. Like Ligeti’s nod to Brahms in the Horn Trio, Hommage à R. Sch. incorporates many features of the other composer’s musical language without impeding Kurtág’s unmistakable modernity. Like Kurtág, Harbison is keen on quoting Schubert’s style and even bases whole sections of November 19, 1828 on unfinished pieces by Schubert (including a fugue he was writing on the day of his death, which gives the piece its title), but he is often more interested in pastiche than parody: as in the third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia, a direct quote can last for well over a few minutes, providing that it is appropriately ornamented and developed. But Harbison avoids the sentimentality which often characterizes the neo-Romantic approach, and the result is convincing, if a little naïve by comparison with Kurtág’s dark scoring – a late Schumann combination of clarinet, viola and piano, with a muffled bass drum note as a humorous farewell.

Similar contrasts persisted in concerts of music by Boulez, Ferneyhough, Dutilleux and MacMillan. Boulez and Dutilleux have been two of France’s chief representatives on the international concert scene for over half a century, and though their styles could not be more different outwardly, Dutilleux has recently spoken of warmer relations between them. On the evidence of these three recent events, it would seem that Boulez, the darling of the avant-garde, is looking to the more distant past for inspiration, while Dutilleux, the successor to Ravel, Poulenc and Honegger, has been incorporating some of the innovations of the post-war years into his formerly deeply conservative oeuvre. His Mystère de l’instant (1985-9) opens with a dark sequence of complex modal chords, which mutate into cross-rhythms and conclude on a bare octave, punctuated by a gong (one is reminded at times of the Ligeti Chamber Concerto). The textures then become sparer, with a high plainsong chant in the strings and a single dissonant line deep in the cellos, recalling Bartók. Finally, a chord that could have come from Alban Berg’s Lulu precedes a series of glissandi effects and fortissimo string clusters that Penderecki would be proud of. All this is accomplished with remarkable speed: although there is nothing revolutionary about the composition, its focus shifts constantly to capture “the mystery of the instant”, and its dramatic unity and impact are consequently novel. Alan Gilbert’s performance with the New York Philharmonic (Avery Fisher Hall, June 4th) was exactly comme il faut: rhythm and phrasing were impeccable, and the balance never obscured the multiplying lines or destroyed the frequent moments of silence. He was also fortunate in having an excellent cimbalom player: the work is scored for strings, percussion and cimbalom, and the unpredictable dialogue between the three sections accounts for much of the work’s dramatic intrigue. In similar vein, Daniel Barenboim achieved a level of clarity in Boulez’s orchestral transcription of his early Notations that has perhaps only been surpassed by the composer himself. When lines were submerged, they always reappeared during crucial silences when many others faded into the background or disappeared. Although the Chicago Symphony struggled at times with the acoustic (the performance was held in Carnegie Hall on May 15th), they delivered a performance of virtuosity and passion in a work that in reality suits few venues around the world (one of Boulez’s perennial sources of complaint). Barenboim sounds more Germanic than ever these days, and the bellowing exchanges between the sections of the orchestra were delivered with an almost Wagnerian clout. Mitsuko Uchida, by contrast, spun a delicate performance of the original Douze Notations in Stern Hall on April 27th. The contrast between the original and the transcription is analogous to the contrast between Dutilleux’s post-war reminiscences of pre-war music and his adoption of techniques by the post-war avant-garde: Boulez’s 1945 composition, while daring by pre-war standards, is in reality a febrile synthesis which predates his later voice. As so often in Uchida’s playing, the softer colors were perfect but the brighter ones were absent, which was frustrating given the extrovert nature of the piece. After passages of ferocious difficulty, Uchida also occasionally lost her concentration – only for a split second on each occasion, but enough to unbalance the pointillist phrasing which these miniatures require. This was not, however, the case with Ensemble 21’s extraordinary rendition of Brian Ferneyhough’s Carceri d’invenzione (1986) at the Miller Theatre on April 22nd. Joined by a line-up of distinguished soloists, this crack new music outfit literally breezed through a work that is reckoned by some to be the most difficult music ever written for a chamber group. Guest flautist Mario Caroli (described by Salvatore Sciarrino as the “Paganini of the flute” – for once, no overexaggeration) was sensational: supremely confident in “Carceri d’Invenzione II”, he delivered a deeply moving performance of the slower final “Mnemosyne”, a solo odyssey which proves Ferneyhough’s claim that he does not innovate in order to experiment, but to compose good music. Good music, given the virtues of this cycle, would be an understatement. Ferneyhough not only manages to explore the outer edges of instrumental sonority with fiendish syncopations and silences almost too short to render, but also creates the ever-shifting patterns of sound which characterize the elusive unity and caprice of great art. By contrast, James MacMillan’s Third Symphony (2003) was a dud. Conflicts between East and West were programmatically embodied by characterless parodies of Japanese music and Shostakovich, and unfortunately the only interesting section of this 35-minute work was a fusion of both of these elements at the climax, a one-minute orgy which seemed determined to outdo The Rite of Spring – while simultaneously pastiching it. Despite MacMillan’s interest in fruitful effects such as microtones, he only rarely acquires the formal control to translate that interest into an ever-evolving sense of surprise – something Ferneyhough achieves regularly. Charles Dutoit’s interpretation in Stern Hall on April 12th was beautifully balanced but rather too Gallic to convey the aggressiveness that any performance of this work is so desperately going to need, and the Philadelphia Orchestra looked distinctly uninterested.—NR

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Borah Bergman / Lol Coxhill / Paul Hession
Mutable 17519-2
Much has been made of pianist Borah Bergman's phenomenal technique – the true emancipation of the left hand from its traditional accompanimental role, and all that – but his distinctive harmonic concept has received little attention. Like Misha Mengelberg, he combines predominantly tonal intervals (major and minor thirds, often in recognisable triads and sevenths) with strategically placed adjacent semitones to create a rich yet slightly acidic harmonic field. Previous outings with volcanic free jazz blowers like Roscoe Mitchell and Peter Brötzmann have tended to ride roughshod over the bittersweet melancholy of the 72 year old Brooklyn maestro's playing, but in Lol Coxhill and Paul Hession he's found the perfect playing partners. Coxhill, like Bergman, is stylistically impossible to pigeonhole – anyone still unfamiliar with the extraordinary range of his music should check out the Emanem retrospective compilation Spectral Soprano at once – and wilfully independent (aka bloody minded) to boot: like Steve Lacy he often gives the impression he's following his own agenda with scant regard to what's going on around him, until a sudden turn-on-a-dime melodic twist reveals he was right there all along. He and Bergman display a remarkable awareness of each other's playing, especially in the pitch domain, where Coxhill's serpentine elegance gently unfolds Bergman's harmonic origami while Hession's immaculate brushwork deftly underpins the structure. Hession, as Brian Morton commented recently in The Wire (he also provided the notes to this disc), "just gets better every time I hear him" – but he also knows just when to lay off and let the melodic and harmonic logic of his playing partners direct the flow. Even the most exuberant tracks, notably the fifth, full of Bergman's forearm volleys and Coxhill's raucous squawks, remain light, the musical energy flying free rather than burning a fiery hole in the floor. Despite its distinctly uninspiring cover and generic track titles, Acts Of Love is definitely one of the most exciting and beautiful improv releases of the year.—DW

Derek Bailey / Evan Parker
Considering this long overdue reissue of Incus 16 in the light of the subsequent split between Derek Bailey and Evan Parker might be a tempting proposition, and Parker's brief footnote in the liners perhaps invites listeners to do just that ("When I resigned as a director of Incus Records in 1987, I took with me the tapes and the rights in all my recordings for that label. Since we had recorded two duo albums, we agreed to take one each."), but The London Concert still stands as perhaps the most impressive collaboration between these two towering figures of European Improvised Music. Now that almost every single release that comes our way from Messrs Parker and Bailey is hailed as a major piece of work, even if it isn't, it's all too easy to forget how utterly unprecedented and dangerous this music must have sounded when it burst forth 30 years ago into the hallowed auditorium of London's Wigmore Hall, a venue traditionally associated with polite (accomplished yet boring) recitals of genteel lieder and fusty chamber music. Martin Davidson's splendid recording restores the concert to its original length, apart from some "theatrics" at the beginning of each half of the concert, and the CD contains four previously unreleased tracks, including the opening "First Half Solo", just over four minutes of unaccompanied Bailey, and an astonishing demonstration of his mastery of the volume pedal easily on a par with the celebrated solo outing Lot 74.
When I was a kid, the people who lived across the street had an ageing and slightly diseased Border Collie called Shep that would stand behind the front door and bark itself hoarse every time its owners went out. My father, driven to distraction by the incessant yapping, threatened on many occasions to soak a sponge in gravy and slip it through the letterbox. He never did, but I often wondered what a dog choking to death on a meaty sponge might sound like. I think I now have an idea. Back in 1975 Evan Parker's soprano and tenor had yet to go their separate ways, the former towards the now-legendary circular breathing extravaganzas, the latter back to its gruff roots in Coltrane-era free jazz. Play this back to back with recent outings like the Leimgruber / Demierre / Phillips reviewed below or Stefan Keune's Sunday Sundaes on Creative Sources, and it's no exaggeration to say Parker was three decades ahead of his time. The London Concert is quite simply indispensable (ha, how many times have you heard that?), and even if the music weren't so astounding it'd be worth the price of admission for the photo of Bailey and Parker standing patiently in a queue at a London bus stop.—DW

Urs Leimgruber / Jacques Demierre / Barre Phillips
This wonderfully knotty and invigorating set of improvisations was recorded in Cologne's Loft in November 2003. Leimgruber is a ruggedly individualistic and sadly under-recorded soprano and tenor saxophonist whose tough, sinewy playing frequently reveals its origins in high octane free jazz – as does Barre Phillips' bass playing (it's not hard to see why this set appealed to psi boss Evan Parker, who came across the trio when they performed in Parthenay, France, last year). Pianist Demierre is as fond of heavy preparation as he is of huge splattering clusters, and his playing, notably on "The Rugged Cross", is truly volcanic, pushing Leimgruber's prodigious technique to its limits with some high register screaming that wouldn't be out of place in Arthur Doyle's Alabama. Anyone who thinks you need a rack of effects pedals and serious amplification to push the music way over the top can think again. That said, there's plenty of quiet intricate interplay on offer too, but the tension remains consistently high. It's an outstanding set, and one that contrasts nicely, in terms of instrumentation, with the Bergman / Coxhill / Hession outing reviewed above.—DW

Louis Sclavis / Jean-Marc Montera
FMP CD 127
Caesar adsum iam forte Brutus aderat. Caesar sic in omnibus, Brutus sic inat? Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum.. Nah, forget it, Roman here means "novel" in French ("novel" as in "work of fiction", not the adjective). Which is why the thirteen tracks are called "chapters", not that there's any discernible overriding narrative structure to the 64-minute span of music. It must be a nouveau roman, then. There are no recurring motives that could be described as characters – though it could be argued that the instruments themselves, Louis Sclavis' soprano sax, clarinet and bass clarinet, Jean-Marc Montera's guitar, table guitar and bank of electronic effects, have distinct personalities – but there's plenty of drama and no lack of emotion, so it's probably not a Robbe-Grillet novel then. Sclavis is an intriguing figure in French jazz and improvised music: too committed to the leftfield to sell out and serve up the tepid trash the mainstream French festival circuit gobbles up, but technically outstanding and much sought after outside France by musicians (Fred Frith) and labels (ECM) alike, he's managed to remain outside, or aloof from, the French improv scene too – probably quite simply because he's too expensive (can't say I blame him). Montera too is a rugged individualist who's just as at home in the rough and ragged fringes of free rock – collaborators include Jean-François Pauvros, Chris Cutler, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo – as Sclavis is with mainstream figures like Henri Texier. John Corbett in his liners compares the pair en passant to Steve Lacy and Derek Bailey, which is quite a shrewd move (I'd be curious to know what Sclavis makes of it, though), summing up his hypothesis in the concluding lines: "Difference doesn't need to be incommensurable. Neither does it have to be negated. It can be celebrated, cultivated, gold-plated." Unlike Lacy and Bailey though, who could make outstanding music together by simply sticking to their individual guns – is there any duo album in improv more perversely soloistic than Outcome (Potlatch)? – Sclavis and Montera do spend a lot of time actively trying to follow each other's moves, rather than just playing together. There are many splendid passages – Sclavis is particularly impressive on soprano – but also, inevitably perhaps in a novel, a few stretches where the attention wanders slightly. Perhaps if the text had been sent to an editor prior to publication a few paragraphs or even a chapter or two could have been redpenned out without seriously detracting from the plot, but after barely half a dozen spins it's probably too early to say. So let me re-read and get back to you.—DW

Sound On Survival
Henceforth 101
Hot on the heels of American Roadwork comes another superb offering from Marco Eneidi, Lisle Ellis and Peter Valsamis, and a fine way it is too to inaugurate Bonnie Wright's new Henceforth label (offerings are forthcoming from Gunda Gottschalk, Ute Volker and Peter Jacquemyn). Whereas American Roadwork was a studio date recorded in CIMP's Spirit Room, Live is very much that, two sets recorded five days apart in May last year in Amherst and Philadelphia. Eneidi's awesome alto chops are once more very much in evidence – I like to think his former teacher Jimmy Lyons would be proud of his exuberant post-bop yelps: the lineage back to Bird via Lyons and Dolphy couldn't be clearer – and bassist Ellis and drummer Valsamis are just as impressive, and on this form would give Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen a run for their money as free jazz's most agile rhythm section. Both Eneidi and Ellis are prolix players, but even so one gets the impression that not one of their thousands, maybe millions, of notes is out of place. Less convincing is Ellis's use of electronics, not because it's incompetent or poorly executed (it isn't: Ellis has been making good use of his software in recent years), simply because it sounds rather out of place on what is essentially a bop rollercoaster.—DW

Anthony Braxton/Matt Bauder
482 Music 482-1034

Braxton continues to make waves in the jazz community: his recent appearance onstage at Victoriaville with Wolf Eyes had excited fans bouncing emails back and forth for days, and his recent monumental eight-CD set of standards released in two installments by Leo Records has been getting lots of buzz too. It’d be a pity then if this more modestly scaled disc from 482 Music got lost in the shuffle. As with many recent Braxton releases, it finds him in dialogue with some of the young players who’ve flocked to him at Wesleyan University, in this case tenor saxophonist/clarinettist Matt Bauder, bassist Aaron Siegel and drummer Zach Wallace (who perform as a trio under the name Memorize the Sky). You know something’s up from the opening moments of Bauder’s “Scaffolding”: it’s very quiet music, making use of drones and minimalist repetitions, advancing so slowly and patiently it’s like a leisurely walk around a sculpture that pauses to take in the view from each side. It’s rather like hearing the gentle clarinet/percussion soundscapes of Scott Fields’ Christangelfox (a previous 482 Music release) filtered through the contemporary electroacoustic improv aesthetic. The rest of the album is a bit more identifiably Braxtonish, though it has a feathery lightness of touch that’s unusual in his work. All the pieces work from visual scores containing little or no actual notation. Bauder’s “Dots,” for instance, is a rather Cagean piece involving a lightly dotted page and a transparent sheet of lines that the musicians lay over it to convert it into notes on staff, a gently pointillist musical space which the players can stretch out or compress at will. Braxton’s two compositions (324B and 327C) are part of his new "Falling River Musics" sequence of graphic scores. One of the few explicit directions Braxton gives for their interpretation is “sound rather than pitch”. Rather than the feast of scribbly, gritty nonidiomatic improv those directions might suggest, the results are airy structures made up out of twists and crumbs of melody – the musical equivalent of a sketch made out of countless faint, suggestive pencil-strokes. This is certainly the calmest and most relaxing Anthony Braxton album I’ve ever heard – and that's meant as praise, not criticism – a music where every gesture however small seems perfectly rounded in itself. It remains to be seen whether it represents a major change of direction for Braxton, or whether its aesthetic owes more to his playing partners; in either case it’s an extraordinary document, and worth hunting down.—ND

Jon Rose
HD CD 005
Recorded during Jon Rose's Paris residency in 2002 in one 45'22'' take, Double Indemnity features the Double "Twin Siamese" Violin invented by Dr Johannes Rosenberg, an instrument, now in the permanent collection of the Rosenberg Museum, that consists of two violins bound together by the neck. The ten strings, whose pitches are fixed by moving tuning pegs, are held by the two regular bridges and the violin is played tabletop with two bows. The disc, accompanied by very interesting essays of Dr Willy Orwig ("The Genetic Tendency in Violin Music") and Dr Joseph K. Rosenberg, another member of this famous Austro-German dynasty of musicians, violinists, scholars and researchers, is dedicated to the Blazek Twins, two Siamese twin sisters who had a Music-Hall act in the early decades of the 20th century – hence the pictures of the Blazeks on the CD box. Violin virtuoso Jon Rose creates frantic and eerie harmonies which recall Hugo Zemp's early 70s recordings of Solomon Island Pan Pipes on Le Chant du Monde, while his pizzicato work, on the other hand, sounds as otherworldly as Korean string music (check out the ajaeng / bowed zither on Social and Folk Korean Music, recorded by John Levy on Lyrichord). This fine recording stands along with Willem Breuker's Lunchconcert for barrelorgans as one of the strangest and funniest music you could hear.—JMVS

Nickendes Perlgras
Konnex KCD 5143
Knowing that Michael Thieke has released two fine discs on Creative Sources, I suspected another redux-minimal CD, but, surprisingly, the music on Meat Hat is very much in free jazz territory, West Coast-style. Fifty years after Jimmy Giuffre recorded Tangents in Jazz with Jack Sheldon, Ralph Pena and Artie Anton, Nickende Perlgras follow a similar spirit and uses distinctly Giuffre-esque instrumentation: Thieke, on clarinet, alto clarinet and saxophone, is joined by Michael Anderson on trumpet and Eric Schaefer on drums. Schaefer has even penned the evocative "Für Jimmy Giuffre" and Thieke the intriguing groovelike "Hurrah die butter ist schon wieder alle". The West Coast feel speeds up slightly on "An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces", a collective effort that recalls Giuffre's own "Abstract" with Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers (on The Three & The Two on Contemporary). The lack of bass forces the musicians to play in a tighter communion, their precision with themes, cues and solos balanced by the natural spontaneity of the music. Those rediscovering acoustic jazz via John Zorn’ s Masada or the sorely missed Michael Moore's Clusone 3 should check this out.—JMVS

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Okkyung Lee
Tzadik 7715
"Special thanks to John Zorn for (simply) being who he is," writes cellist Okkyung Lee. And, cynics might add, for signing the cheque.. Nihm is, after all, quintessentially Tzadik product, a typically Downtown (as was) mixture of atmospheric, wistful improv ("On A Windy Day", "Anything You Say, Anything You (Don't) Say"), Balkan-inflected post-klez post-Masada ("That Undeniable Empty Feeling", "Returning Point") with the odd splash of insanity ("Deep Blue Knot") cobbed in for good measure. The performances are naturally as impressive as the line-up – Tim Barnes and John Hollenbeck on percussion, Trevor Dunn on bass, Doug Wieselman on clarinets, Shelley Burgon on harp, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Ikue Mori on electronics join Lee in ten cunningly sequenced and exquisitely recorded pieces. Notching up bonus Zornie points, the eternally shining gold booklet comes complete with a quotation not from Mickey Spillane, but from Raymond Chandler: "The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little." Which, if read aloud while listening to the hauntingly beautiful "Sky" could bring a tear to the eye of the hardest hardboiled private eye. Or music journalist.—DW

Fredrik Soegaard / Hasse Poulsen
Leo CD LR 436
The (so far) only gig I played with Hasse Poulsen (along with Edward Perraud on drums and Scott Rosenberg, whose idea it was) was compared by one enthusiastic punter in the audience to Amon Düül's Psychedelic Underground, of all things. That surprised me at the time, but it's true that there is a psychedelic streak to the Danish guitarist's playing in groups such as Sound Of Choice, 49° Nord and Das Kapital – psychedelic as in colourful.. but rambling (Deleuze freaks would probably call it "rhizomatic"). This outing with Fredrik Soegaard (you ought to know that the archive prints from the Danish National Library of Science and Medicine in the inner sleeve are more interesting to look at than Poulsen's rather bland photograph used for the cover) is curiously similar to Jean-François Pauvros and Makoto Kawabata's Extrême Onction on Fractal (so it won't come as any surprise to learn that the bloke who compared our set to Amon Düül was none other than Fractal's Jérôme Génin). Awash with special effects – Soegaard uses MIDI Fractal (no puns intended, Jérôme!) and an Eventide 3000 – it also recalls the pioneering work of the granddaddy of looped guitar, Robert Fripp, and like his vintage Frippertronics albums manages, paradoxically, to be at one and the same time spaced out and claustrophobic.—DW

Wadada Leo Smith / Walter Quintus / Katya Quintus /
Miroslav Tadic / Mark Nauseef
Leo CD LR 435
Leo Feigin's wildly enthusiastic press release blurbs are always fun to read, but his description of Snakish as one of the all time best releases on his label will surely raise a few eyebrows. Not because it's somewhat atypical in a catalogue largely devoted to free jazz (the Ganelin Trio, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Braxton Leos have attained classic status, but recent outings featuring Frank Gratkowski and Wally Shoup are just as worthy of attention), but because it's such an elusive piece of work. Wadada Leo Smith's trumpet is as mellifluous as ever, but exactly how it fits into the strange, amorphous soundworld created by Katya Quintus (voice), Walter Quintus (laptop and electronics), Miroslav Tadic (guitars) and Mark Nauseef (percussion and electronics) isn't always all that clear. None of the 14 pieces on the album is very long – all but four clock in under four minutes – and one wishes that the musicians could have developed several of them further. The overriding impression on listening to the album all the way through is one of curiosity and wonder tinged with mild frustration: the music is seductive and works very well with a wide palette of sounds, but once the final "Coiling" has slunk off into the undergrowth one has great difficulty recalling any of Snakish's actual themes and structures. Time will tell whether Feigin's claims for the album are borne out; in the meantime it would be great to hear more from the same group.—DW

Mats Gustafsson
Fireworks FER 1054
A few years ago Mats Gustafsson surprised everyone – or at least those hardcore improv punters who'd got used to his repertoire of spits, splutters, barks and yelps – by teaming up with David Grubbs (on harmonium) on Apertura, a whole album of continuous pianissimo circular-breathing drone on Grubbs's Blue Chopsticks label. Nowadays Mats is best known for his ball-breaking muscular gangsta jazz with groups like The Thing, which makes Slide all the more surprising. The album consists of a single composition, "Slide Perspectives", on which Gustafsson plays a slide saxophone (it sounds to all intents and purposes like a cross between a clarinet and a swanee whistle – no wonder it never caught on), which he toots more or less every second while raising the pitch gradually by microtonal increments. After 19'20" the whole register of the instrument – just over a couple of octaves – has been covered, and, surprise, during the rest of the piece Gustafsson moves back downwards until we're back to where we started. That's it. Though it's fun listening to the harmonic afterglow reverberating in the performance space, the novelty soon wears off. If you enjoy arid acoustic research outings like Pietro Grossi's Battimenti, this is probably for you, but if you're coming to Gustafsson's huge discography for the first time, there are better places to start.—DW

Ruth Barberán / Margarida Garcia / Ferran Fages / Alfredo Costa Monteiro
Damn, and here I was all ready to go with a super new term to describe a whole new genre of improvised music: "soft noise".. OK so I nicked it from Eric Cordier – it's how he described his duo with Tetuzi Akiyama – but it applied quite nicely to some of the stuff that was coming out about a couple of years of ago, including Tetuzi's Résophonie album on ABS, and the first few releases by Cremaster, the duo of Ferran Fages and Alfredo Costa Monteiro. Problem is, Octante, which also features Fages and Costa Monteiro (on, respectively, feedback mixing board and pickups and accordion) along with trumpeter Ruth Barberán and electric bassist Margarida Garcia isn't soft. In fact it's pretty loud and decidedly nasty in places. The Iberian peninsular improvisers have now gone way beyond the old lowercase lingua franca puffs and spurts into the kind of abrasive noise that wouldn't be at all out of place at the No Fun festival. This quartet has more in common with Wolf Eyes and Femail than it does with Filament or Broken Consort. The only thing that identifies their work as "improv" as opposed to "noise" is that there remain patches of stillness, windows in the structure that still allow rays of light – aka extraneous sound – to penetrate. Octante, rather than the recent Creative Sources outing Istmo, is the real successor to last year's excellent Atolon on Rossbin – or rather precursor, as it was in fact recorded earlier, in July 2003. Come to think of it, Atolon wasn't exactly soft either. Time to rethink the lexicon, redraw the map. In the meantime, check this out.—DW

Sedimental SEDCD 041
The adjective austere has had a pretty heavy possing here over the past few years (a quick click on PT's nifty homepage search engine – try it, kids! – reveals it's appeared in no fewer than 46 reviews on the site), but if ever an album truly deserved to be described as such, it's this one. For their second full-length outing after Object 2 on Locust, released in 2003 but recorded earlier, EKG – Kyle Bruckmann (oboe, English horn, electronics) and Ernst Karel (trumpet and electronics) – return to the frozen Arctic of slow, lumbering analog drone, a hostile environment in which high-speed chattery, splattery old school improv is as unwelcome as user friendly clicks'n'cuts. Few explorers who venture in return to tell the tale – Werner Dafeldecker comes to mind, as does Boris Hauf (both recorded with Bruckmann in Vienna a couple of years ago and we're still waiting for the results to defrost) – the only way to survive is don protective clothes and head out into the blizzard, slowly marking out a path through the white, wind-blasted wasteland. Don't expect a hot shower and a warm bed at the end of the day, either. There is a sort of "Last Post" loneliness to Karel's trumpet on "Days", or maybe it's just my imagination. Or frostbite. I've heard that they send bright young rising star yuppies off on survival holidays into the wilds of Siberia to build rafts using nothing more than a Swiss Army knife, sail down black rivers, eat tree bark and wrestle with grizzly bears. Next time they organise one No Sign should be required listening, on permanent loop. This is great stuff.—DW

Avram Fefer/Bobby Few
Boxholder BXH 048
Avram Fefer/Bobby Few
Boxholder BXH 049
These two albums come at the sax/piano format from complementary directions. Kindred Spirits is a soft-spoken batch of Monk, Mingus and Ellington tunes, while Heavenly Places offers tumultuous free-jazz improvisations; two originals by Fefer turn up on both discs, as if to knit the whole project together. When free-jazzers play “in the tradition” the results can be awkward or just pleasantly offbeat, but both these guys have impeccable jazz chops, and perform tunes like “Ask Me Now” and “Come Sunday” with thorough understanding. Kindred Spirits is often uncannily close in sound and approach to a Lacy/Waldron duet, even though Fefer mostly plays tenor here (getting a loamy sound halfway between Ricky Ford and David Murray). It’s a very calm album, gratifyingly unsentimental despite the ballad-heavy program but curiously irony-free: indeed, it’s peculiarly disconcerting to hear Mingus without the lurching excess or Monk delivered so unaffectedly.
Heavenly Places reveals a different side to these players. Fefer’s tone is harder and sometimes pained, especially on the title-track, a tribute to the late Oliver Johnson and Wilber Morris. He also turns out to be one of the few free-jazz saxophonists whose range of timbral manipulations is as imaginative as those of a specialist free-improviser like John Butcher. Few’s stoical Mal Waldron side is still present on the title-track, while on the freely-improvised “Happy Hour” he unleashes a whirling two-handed rhapsody at the keyboard, like some exotic late-Romantic chromatic fantasist. Where the other album seems ultimately a little too becalmed – despite Few’s glittering, show-stopper solo work – Heavenly Places is more colourful and openended, a tumultuous spiritual adventure resolved by the closing hymn “Kingdom Come.” Feverfew, by the way, is an aromatic plant used by traditional healers to soothe migraines and other ailments. I'm happy to prescribe these two discs to those in need.—ND

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David Behrman
Experimental Intermedia XI 129
Sam Behrman (David's father) and English "soldier-poet" Siegfried Sassoon were long-distance friends, a fact duly celebrated in the first CD of this double set. "My Dear Siegfried" (which I politely suggest should first be approached through headphones while carefully reading the texts) is a six-movement document of some of the most dramatic moments and intense recollections by two profound thinkers, under the guise of reciprocal letters or vivid remembrances of childhood's inner discoveries. On the exquisite "My Father's Grocery Store", religion-inspired repression, a sense of guilt and prize fighting all obey a lucid compositional logic where Ralph Samuelson's shakuhachi and Peter Zummo's gorgeous trombone inflections complement Behrman's computerized systematisations and the readings by Thomas Buckner, Eric Barsness and Maria Ludovici, resulting in a beautifully controlled anarchy – one of this composer's trademarks. The scary menace of the drones underlining the most anguished sections of "Letter from S.N.Behrman" and "Letter from Siegfried Sassoon", a one-week-span exchange of ideas and anxious fears dating from the beginning of World War II, along with the masterful use of dark and light seems to represent a parallel population of spirits and primordial man-machines who (if they had only thought it appropriate) might have influenced the choices of the powers that be, yet preferred to remain imprisoned in their own immobile precariousness, leaving humans to their fate. The evocative character of this important composition never detracts from its penetrating deliquescence.
The second disc presents five tracks ranging from 1969's "A New Team Takes Over", a tape piece using snippets of speech by members of the Nixon Administration, to 2002's "Viewfinder", a sound installation where a sensor linked to a camera changes pitches and colours emitted by homemade synthesizers according to movements detected in the room. Homemades are also the source for the static minimalism of 1972's "Pools Of Phase Locked Loops", a corpulent mass of electronic sound that recalls Charlemagne Palestine's work with oscillators. While "Touch Tones" (1979) is little more than an experiment with a computer and voltage controlled filters, this disc's real masterpiece is "QSRL", a startling tone poem from 1998 that finds Jon Gibson's sensual saxophone playing waiting games with wonderful shifting harmonies that are typical Behrman – think "Leapday Night". The oblique sweetness of Behrman's music has always been its driving force and these two fine discs confirm his unblemished greatness.—MR

Robert Normandeau
Empreintes DIGITALes IMED 0575 Audio DVD
A professor in electroacoustic composition at Montreal University, Robert Normandeau is also one of those composers whose music can sound like a divertissement but, at times, becomes deeply revealing if not disturbing. This duality is immediately evident when one compares the first two tracks on this release: "Puzzle", a rhythmic exercise scored for door sounds and vocal onomatopoeia, is lively, almost funny, yet pretty flat as far as psychic impact goes. The following "Eden", on the other hand, is a detailed architecture of brilliant loops and almost (Steve) Reichian pulses, where female voices and contrasting illuminations pave the way for an emphatic tonal affirmation that remains forward looking while managing to avoid the obvious. "Chorus", dedicated to the victims of 9/11, takes some of the basic chant elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and entangles them in liberal electrostatic vocal jargon in which immobility and desperation intertwine, hopelessly waiting for non-existent peace. "StrinGDberg", for multilayered hurdy-gurdy and cello, is dramatically minimalist, but its instrumental peculiarities are so incredibly deformed that I could have sworn a vocal source was present. The majestic crescendo of its mechanical subdivision is gospel for lovers of high-density powerful consonance. Closing the DVD, "Hamlet-Machine With Actors" is, according to the composer, a tentative description of the oppression that society exerts on man, the representation of taboos and the end of art. It's a dark, thrilling piece where vocal utterances, repeated laughter, lugubrious electronics and a clutter of percussion fuse in a hellish mire, not too far removed from Art Zoyd and Cassiber at their most stirring moments.—MR

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Morceaux de Machines
No Type IMNT 0413
Noise as a musical genre is no longer the bastard child of Industrial, and while many practitioners and aficionados still subscribe to its no-pain-no-gain aesthetic, there's a whole basketful of young cats out there who just wanna have fun. Think Lasse Marhaug, Maja Ratkje – and Morceaux de Machines, the Québecois duo of A. Dontigny and Erick d'Orion, aided and abetted here on four tracks by Diane Labrosse, Martin Tétreault and the ubiquitous Otomo Yoshihide (if a genie ever grants you three wishes you could really piss him off by using one of them to ask for the complete Otomo discography.. the other two would be for a house big enough to store it and enough time to listen to it all). Adding a healthy dose of 150plus BPM drum'n'bass'n'gabba is a great idea – you'll be surprised how likeable even the most vicious sonic knife attacks can be if there's a mighty backbeat crunching along in the background (the wise old man of Noise, Masami Akita, knows this only too well), but there's more to these nine tracks than merciless hardcore. Dontigny and d'Orion have a huge arsenal of sonic weaponry at their disposal, from mangled early Neubaten-style metal, vertiginous turntablism (not so much plunderphonics as chunderphonics), scything drones and all manner of digital clutter. The ultimate goal might still be to end up with ears full of blood, but with Estrapade you can dance yourself silly while the earwax melts. Let's hope these chaps hook up with those Norwegians soon for some transatlantic aural tag wrestling.—DW

Thomas Köner
MillePlateauxMedia MPM 003 CD/DVD
I've been following the work of Permafrost overlord Thomas Köner for 13 years now and have yet to find one of his immobile icy raptures that fails to satisfy. Nuuk (originally released as part of the Big Cat 4CD box Driftworks along with music by Pauline Oliveros, Randy Raine-Reusch, Paul Schütze and Nijiumu) is a series of immaculate slowly rolling cloud masses, whose rumbling subfrequencies sing an impalpable hosanna to the eternal silence. From that mysterious reticence, aggregates of submerged illusions and manipulations of abnormal stasis invade the air, percolations of stationary uneasiness Köner remodels into dark awareness by fusing them with the most elemental parts of our environment. "Nuuk (night)" begins with a low drone (incredibly similar to Klaus Wiese's Space, the greatest drone record ever released, if you ask me), but were I forced to choose just one track here, it would be "Nuuk (day)", with its marmoreal currents of expressionless desolation throwing feeble rays of hope, a glimpse of the future soon lost in virtual landscapes of reminiscence.. Four of these seven tracks accompany Köner's static imagery in a double sided (NTSC/PAL versions) DVD included in the package; two stills – a peripheral urban area and a seashore, both covered with snow – are shown at various moments of the day; crepuscular snapshots and grey afternoons slowly alternate without additional dynamics, perfect for the hollow depths Köner reports from. When the music's over, absence weighs a little more than before.—MR

Aferecords Afe062 CD
Entitling one of your pieces "Tsunami Notes" and featuring spoken text (on "Adriatico Lisergico" there's even the sound of waves breaking on the seashore) certainly goes against the grain of electronica's predominantly abstract non-programmatic agenda. In context, the glistening chords and gently collapsing rumble of the opening "Almost Anything" are heard more as doleful requiem than gradually shifting microtonal clusters, and the eerie bleeps behind the Chinese water torture of "Tsunami Notes" take on a whole new meaning. The closing "Almost Nothing" – the reference to Luc Ferrari's "Presque Rien N°.1", which originated on the other side of the Adriatic, couldn't be clearer – is a 26-minute tone poem complete with birds twittering merrily away while some sporadic (re)construction work carries on in the foreground and the occasional light aircraft drones by overhead. Whether it'll sound as good once the images of devastated paradise beaches and bloated rotting corpses has faded from our imagination is a moot point, but the elegance of the production and the precision and beauty of Adriano Zanni's music is undeniable.—DW

Peter Wright
Pseudoarcana PACD066
As you'll have probably guessed on reading the retrospective above, Peter Wright is one of the men who have redefined the concept of drone guitar. Yellow Horizon continues where he left off on his recent excellent Desolation, Beauty, Violence, and is conceived for the same instrumentation, a 12-string Danelectro plus minimal effects and field recordings. Dedicated to the beautiful losers (a probable hint to a short-lived namesake project by Peter) these eight jewels glow with the melancholy of tolling bells evoking distant childhood memories. All the tracks gravitate around a few tonal centres, sometimes just one, their muffled harmony a revealing suspension of gravity, as Wright leaves out all trace of harshness to build chants, patterns and blurred visuals whose purity is almost palpable. The somnolent wave of aching grace of "Offa's Dyke" ends far too soon, although in fact many minutes elapse while we're blissed away by the brain-massaging angels of its guitar harmonics. Once more our man confirms himself as one of the true greats and it's about time his music reached a much wider audience, as its transcendental repetition is a veritable blessing for today's tormented ears.—MR

Peter Rehberg
Mosz 007
After two outings with DACM on Asphodel and Mego, Mego main man / laptopper par excellence Peter "Pita" Rehberg continues his work collaborating with dancers with this set of pieces written for choreographer Chris Haring. Rehberg's music has come a long way since 1995's Seven Tons For Free, and this album, like the recent Get Off (Hapna) reveals a solid working knowledge of the past history of electronic music, while remaining true to his roots in the outer reaches of techno and noise ("Scream"). There's often the hint of backbeat, and plenty of crunchy glitch and booming drone ("1407"), but also a welcome lightness of touch and ear for meticulous detail ("Never Worry"). Though not as well rounded as Get Off – the albums as a whole has more the feel of a sampler of favourite moments from a larger work, rather than a complete work in itself – Fremdkoerper is still a valuable addition to Rehberg's already impressive discography.—DW

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